This is all Andre's fault. There I was minding my own cyberbusiness when she asks me to smack her for thinking that a DS/HCL crossover might be workable, but since she was working on her Unnamed Opus she didn't want to be distracted. Well, darn her, the idea got into my head and took root like kudzu and. . . well. . . this is the result.

This is a Due South & Hard Core Logo slash crossover (yes, I am unhinged). Benton Fraser belongs to Alliance/ Atlantis and Paul Haggis. Billy Tallent belongs to Michael Turner, Bruce McDonald, Noel S. Baker, and "Ed Festus Productions." Man, he really gets around, doesn't he? Rated NC-17 for explicit m/m sex, bad language, and angst. There are also references (not explicit) to non-consensual sex and abusive relationships so be warned. Also there are some MAJOR RUIN-THE-ENDING-TYPE SPOILERS for Hard Core Logo, as well as some minor spoilers for the DS episode "Dr. Longball." Oh yeah, and I had to fudge the timeline a little, so assume this is an AU where HCL took place about a year later than it really did, and that the minor league season extends into October. And don't hit me.

Soundtrack for this one: Hard Core Logo: 'Blue Tattoo,' Sarah McLachlan: 'Mary' and 'Angel,' Luka Bloom's 'Cold Comfort,' Tara MacLean: 'Evidence,' Paul Brady:'Help Me To Believe,' and last but certainly not least, Bruce Cockburn:'The Whole Night Sky.'

Thanks to AuKestrel, Andreshan, LaToot and Meghan for beta! –Kellie

Northern Comfort
© 1999, Kellie Matthews

        Benton Fraser sat at the Consulate reception desk, processing a stack of immigration applications in the glow of the banker's lamp, feeling depressed, and alone. Of course, he was alone, since it was after hours and save for himself, the Consulate was empty. But that wasn't why he felt alone. Ray had been gone only a few hours, yet he felt as if it had been weeks. He knew why, of course. It was because Ray had gone on a vacation without him. More than that, had gone with a woman. It shouldn't hurt. He knew better. He and Ray did not have that sort of relationship. Never would. Ray was solidly, undeniably heterosexual, and this trip only served to underscore that.
        Unfortunately reality rarely played a role in fantasy, and somewhere deep inside Ben had felt that Ray was beginning to respond to him as more than just a partner. Since the incident with the stolen gold bullion, their interactions had grown increasingly intimate; they spent most of their time, even free time, together. Of late there had seemed to be something, a spark between them which was almost sexual in its intensity. Then Ray had, with odd reticence, announced that he was going on vacation, to Acapulco, with someone named Laura, whom he'd never even mentioned before, and Ben's fantasy had come crashing down around him like a glacier calving.
        Somehow Ben had managed to hide his hurt behind a blandly congratulatory remark, and had worked hard not to spoil Ray's vacation by behaving pettily. It had been difficult, but he thought he'd managed it. No matter his own feelings, Ray deserved happiness. He was a good man, a good partner. Would have been a wonderful lov . . . . A knock at the door interrupted that thought. Probably just as well. He oughtn't be thinking things like that. It was futile and only made him feel worse.
        A glance at his watch told him it was after ten, an odd time for anyone to be calling at the Consulate. At least, with Ray out of town it was. Ray occasionally showed up at even odder times, and would probably have let himself in using a credit card at any rate. Fraser thought for a moment about going to get his tunic from his office, but since it was probably Turnbull having forgotten something, including his key, there was no reason to be formal. He got up, crossed the foyer and opened the door to find the caller walking away, down the stairs. A tallish, slender man in a flannel shirt and jeans, with spiked blonde hair, holding some sort of case in his right hand. Ben's heart sped up.
        "Ray!" he exclaimed, pleased.
        The man turned, startled, no trace of recognition in his gaze. Fraser stared. It wasn't Ray, but . . . it was. The visitor was alike enough to be Ray's twin, yet he was sure he'd never seen this man in his life.
        "Excuse me?" the man asked.
        "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else. Can I help you?"
        The man's gaze flickered down, back up again, and he flashed a quick grin. "Interesting pants there. You a Mountie?"
        Fraser was a little surprised. So few people here in the United States recognized even the full uniform, much less just the trousers. He nodded. "Yes, I am."
        "Thought so." The visitor nodded toward the door. "Didn't think anybody was at home. Thought someone just left a light on, I mean, it is after hours." His voice was a little rougher than Ray's, the accent and phrasing subtly different.
        "I was working a bit late. Is there something I can do for you?"
        "Hope so. I'm kind of stuck. Got here for a gig, but it's been canceled. Somebody forgot to call and tell the new guy." He jerked a thumb toward his chest, apparently indicating that he was the 'new guy', then shrugged and flashed a smile that was half wince. "Different band, same old story."
        He stepped forward a little, into the glow cast by the security light, and Fraser could see that there was dirt on his face, or was that a bruise? His eyes narrowed, realizing that there were several bruises, and scrapes as well. Actually, now that Ben could see him better, he realized the man looked as if he'd been rolling on the ground. He frowned.
        "Are you injured?"
        "Nah, had worse," the man said, shrugging again, then he held up the case in his hand and grinned. "At least they didn't get my livelihood."
        Fraser could see now that it was a guitar case. He was beginning to wonder if the man was ever going to come to the point, but he held his irritation back, realizing he was responding as if this was Ray, not a complete stranger. He wondered if his tendency to be irritable with Ray was part of what had prompted him to go on vacation with that 'Laura' person. He ought to have better control over himself, it wasn't Ray's fault he was attracted to him.
        "They?" he prompted gently.
        The man sighed, slumping a little. He looked tired, drawn even. "Yeah. Got rolled for my wallet. They got my passport, too. That's why I'm here."
        The light dawned. "You're a Canadian citizen?" That would explain why he recognized the uniform.
        The smile came back, slightly shy, as he nodded. "Vancouver, B.C. You? I'd guess the Territories."
        That startled him. How on earth had the man guessed that? It wasn't as if his birthplace was written on his forehead. Fraser blocked out his surprise, and concentrated on the task at hand. "You were robbed?"
        The other man nodded. "Dumb, right? You'd think I didn't live in cities most of my life. Walking around like a goddamned tourist, forgetting to watch myself."
        "One shouldn't have to 'watch' oneself all the time. As for the lost passport, I'm sure I can assist you with that problem. Please come in and I'll get started on that immediately. Did you notify the police?"
        His guest nodded. "Yeah, they're the ones who told me there might be somebody home here, even though it was after hours." He grinned. "Guess they were right. Maybe my luck's changing." He shifted the guitar case a little, and put a foot on the first step, tried to take the second one, and his left knee buckled as he put weight on it. He gave a strangled little gasp, and almost dropped the guitar, and Fraser saw pain flash across his face as his knee hit the step.
        "You are hurt!" he exclaimed, taking the guitar and putting an arm around the other man's waist to assist him to his feet. Good lord, he was thin! Thinner even than Ray. He could distinctly feel ribs under his palm, through the man's clothing. His protective instincts stirred. "Please, come inside."
        The man nodded and leaned on him, limping, as Fraser steered him into the parlor and seated him in the big wingback chair, then stepped back.
        "Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP," he said, extending a hand.
        "Billy Tallent, sometime guitarist for mediocre bands," the blond man returned.
        "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tallent."
        The man laughed. "Just Billy. 'Mr. Tallent' sounds like something off a bad sitcom."
        Fraser nodded, and they shook hands. Billy's hands, like the rest of him, seemed eerily like Ray's. Long fingers, elegantly recurved thumbs, narrow palms. Like Ray, he wore a bracelet around one bony wrist. Unlike Ray, he also wore a heavy silver ring on one thumb, and a lighter band on one forefinger. To Fraser's astonishment, the man didn't let go of his hand immediately. He turned it over in his own, traced a finger across his fingertips, then he finally let go and looked up.
        "You play?"
        Ah. He must have felt the calluses. Fraser nodded, embarrassed. "Only for my own edification."
        Billy looked him straight in the eyes and snorted rudely. "Fuck that shit. You play 'cause you love it."
        Pinned by that clear blue gaze, Fraser felt himself coloring, and cleared his throat, annoyed with himself. Many, if not most people cursed, he shouldn't be so sensitive. "I do enjoy it, yes."
        Billy dropped his gaze, and nodded. "That's the best way to be. Don't ever do something you love for a living."
        There was something profound in that statement, Fraser decided. And there was something haunted in the other man's eyes. He studied the thin, slouched figure for a moment. It was hard to tell what was scrape, what was bruise, and what was dirt. Though there was a bloodstain on the knee of his jeans which explained why he'd fallen outside. He probably wasn't injured badly enough to need a physician or the police would have taken him to the hospital, but he did need cleaning up.
        "Wait here, I'll be back in a moment."
        Billy nodded wearily. "Not going anywhere."
        Fraser retrieved a pen and paper from the desk. "If you'll just write down the correct spelling of your name and your social insurance number, I'll get started on that replacement passport for you as well."
        "Thanks. Appreciate it, since it's after hours and all. But if you'll hand me my guitar case, I can do better than that," Billy said. Fraser got it for him, and the other man unfastened the case and slipped his long fingers beneath the neck of the instrument, tugging out a piece of paper, which he handed to Fraser. It was a photocopy of the first two pages of his passport. He grinned. "Lost it once before. Now I always carry a copy somewhere else. That work for you?"
        "Yes, this will be very helpful," Fraser said, then he glanced at the paper, and frowned. "I thought you said your name was Tallent."
        "That's my stage name, Boisy's the one I was born with."
        "Ah," he said, reassured by that. "If you haven't yet called your bank card issuers to report the theft, you should do so now," Fraser said, nodding toward the phone on the small table next to the chair. "We've discovered that asking for the replacement cards to be delivered here to the Consulate often expedites the request." He handed Billy the sheet of Consulate letterhead he held. "Here's the address and phone number."
        "Thanks. Good idea." Billy dug in his guitar case for something else, pulled out a ragged, much-folded piece of paper and started unfolding it.
        Fraser assumed that it contained bank-card information, and left the room, going first to his office where he took a moment at his computer to send off an information request on William Boisy. That done, he got out his sweatpants to loan the other man, and retrieved the first aid kit, a towel, and a washcloth from the storage closet. Returning to the parlor, he stood in the doorway for a moment, wondering what strange synchronicity had brought this man to his very door. The universe was sometimes a very odd place.
        "I'd like to see to those injuries," he said quietly.
        Billy jumped a little, eyelids snapping open. He must have been dozing. He glanced at what Fraser held in his hands, and looked embarrassed.
        "Look, I'm a big boy now, I can do it."
        Fraser put on his stubborn face. "I've had some EMT training, I think it would be best if I looked after you."
        The blond looked uncomfortable, then he sighed and shrugged. "Okay, whatever. But can I wash up first?"
        "Certainly, and since I suspect it won't be possible for me to attend to your knee without doing damage to your trousers, you may wish to change into these." Fraser held the sweatpants up for inspection. "The washroom is there." He nodded toward the door.
        The other man started to push himself awkwardly out of the chair. Fraser held out a hand, and Billy took it, allowing the larger man to pull him carefully to his feet. The Mountie followed as he limped across the floor to the washroom, and once he was there handed him the sweatpants, towel, and washcloth.
        "Thanks, man." Billy said, closing the door.
        His slow, awkward movements reminded Ben of Ray's, after he'd been 'sparring', and he suspected the guitarist was in considerable pain, but determined not to show it. He waited patiently while he heard the sound of the toilet being flushed, water running, and various rustling noises and low-voiced curses that seemed to indicate the man was having some trouble undressing. Finally the door opened, and Billy hobbled out, barefoot now, wearing Fraser's sweatpants and his own t-shirt, holding his jeans and boots. He looked even paler and more tired than before.
        "Got to buy some looser jeans," he commented wryly, confirming Fraser's suspicion that he'd had difficulty in disrobing. He sat down carefully, left leg extended in front of him. "Man, I'm too old for this shit," he said with a sigh.
        Ben wondered exactly what 'shit' he meant, but couldn't think of a way to ask that wouldn't involve using the word, so instead he crouched at Billy's feet and started to ease the left pantleg upward until he had the soft fleece pushed well above his knee, which was swollen, and purple, and bore a bad cut across the patella. He tsked, shaking his head, opening an alcohol wipe from the first aid kit
        "This will hurt."
        "Can't hurt much worse," Billy said drily. "Go on."
        Fraser gently swiped the pad across the cut, heard the hiss of an indrawn breath as the sting hit. There didn't appear to be any dirt or gravel in the wound, so he applied antibiotic ointment, and taped a non-stick gauze pad over it. "I'm going to wrap it, to reduce the swelling," he said, just to break the silence. "And I'll get you some ice for it in a bit." He carefully wound an elastic bandage around the joint, not so tight as to impede circulation, while still snug enough to provide a modicum of support for the injured tissues. That done, he eased the pantleg back down. "There. That's done, now I'll attend to those scrapes on your face."
        Billy rolled his eyes. "Don't bother. Some people would probably say they improve the view."
        Fraser was taken aback by that statement. "Why on earth would someone say that?"
        Billy laughed, then he looked at Fraser, and an odd expression came over his face. He frowned. "You really meant that, didn't you?"
        "I never say things I don't mean," Ben said, a little offended.
        Billy laughed softly. "Then you're one in a million, Constable Fraser. Do people call you Ben?"
        "Rarely," Fraser said, perfectly honest. "Most people just call me Fraser."
        "Hunh," Billy said, eyeing him. "Yeah. I can see why."
        Ben frowned. He'd never really known why that was, himself, and here this stranger was presuming to think he knew? "And that would be?"
        The eyes fell, lifted, assessingly, then Billy shrugged. "Well, you're a pretty formal guy. I can tell that just from looking at you. I bet most people'd feel weird calling you by anything other than a title. Me, I'm just the opposite. People I don't even know call me Billy. Pretty fucking pathetic, for a man my age."
        Ben forced himself to ignore the profanity. It was becoming clear to him that this man was hurting, in an entirely non-physical way, though there was that as well.
        "What would you prefer to be called?" Fraser asked him, wanting to give aid, somehow, to the mental agony as well as the physical.
        The haunted eyes shifted briefly to his, then away, and Billy made a wry face. "That's just it. I've been Billy so long I don't know anything else, so Billy I stay. But thanks for asking. You're a nice guy, B. . . I mean, Fraser."
        "You can call me Ben," Fraser said, surprising himself.
        Apparently he surprised Billy, too, for there was a flicker of something across his face, a slight glow of pleasure, and he nodded. "Will do."
        "I'd still like to treat those scrapes," Fraser said, not knowing what else to say. He felt oddly awkward around this man.
        Billy looked at him, eyes gleaming with a hint of amusement. "Yeah, yeah. I get it. You were a Boy Scout, weren't you?"
        "You have a remarkable facility for character analysis," Ben said, disconcerted. "Speaking of which, how did you know I was from the Territories?"
        Billy chuckled. "You've got that self-sufficient thing going. And the polite thing. Figured you weren't from anyplace where you got much exposure to city shit."
        "Ah. Well, excellent deductions. Have you ever considered a career in law enforcement?"
        That earned a full-out laugh, Billy pressing a hand against his ribs as if they hurt him. "Oh fuck, no! And they wouldn't have me. I'm a juvie, all the way, Ben. But thanks for the compliment." He leaned back in the chair, tilting his head back a little, closing his eyes. "Okay, fix me up and earn your merit badge. Just don't use that red stuff, okay? I don't want to look like a clown."
        For some reason Fraser found himself disappointed when Billy closed his eyes. They were so incredibly lucent . . . good God! Fraser felt himself blushing, and cracked his neck. Just because he looked like Ray was no reason to go mooning over him like a lovesick teenager.
        "Actually, iodine has been shown to retard the healing process. I have a salve which works much better," he said blandly, to cover his discomfort.
        He opened a fresh alcohol pad and leaned in to dab at the scrapes. Now that he was close, Fraser could see that although some of the bruises and scrapes on Billy's face were recent, there were others, older, nearly faded. And there was a faint scar-like mark on his lower lip, as if it had been split. Dragging his gaze away from that beautifully modeled mouth, he mentally shook himself again. He had to get himself in hand.
        "Were you in another fight recently?" he asked, incurably curious.
        The blue eyes flashed open, and the pain in them was depthless. "No."
        "Ah," Fraser said, confused, and disconcerted by the emotion revealed there. "I just thought, well, some of these bruises appear to be older than the others."
        Eyes closed again. "Yeah. A week and a day now. Just eight days. But it wasn't a fight. Not really. I didn't know. Didn't understand. My fault. I should've told him. God. Oh, god." The rough, smoky voice broke, and the man curled over, burying his face in his hands, weeping as if his heart were broken.
        Fraser hovered over him, distressed by his pain, wanting to help, not knowing how. After a moment he awkwardly reached down, put a hand on one bony shoulder, then hesitantly put his other hand on the other shoulder, and drew the other man to him, holding him gently as he sobbed. As if it were not at all unusual, the other man's arms slid around his waist, and he hid his face against Fraser's's stomach. Fraser could feel the heat and wetness of tears as they soaked into his undershirt. He didn't pull back, though a disapproving voice within him told him he should, and after a moment he found himself gently stroking the spiky hair, finding it surprisingly soft to his hand, though a trifle 'crunchy' from the styling products used to produce that look. The storm lasted only a short while, and then the other man seemed to startle, realizing he was weeping in the arms of a stranger, and he drew back, covering his face with one long-fingered hand.
        "Christ! Sorry, you must think I'm a fucking headcase."
        "I think you're a man in a great deal of pain, but you seem perfectly sane to me."
        The hand didn't move, but he saw the corners of Billy's mouth twitch in a stillborn smile. After a moment he wiped his eyes, and lowered his hand, looking uncomfortable and embarrassed. "So, is dealing with fucked-up semi-hysterical guitarists usually in your job description?"
        "My job description has never been any too well-defined. I'm sure I could find justification for nearly anything within it." Fraser paused a moment, gathering his resolve, then forged on. "Would you like to talk?"
        Billy's eyes focused on something a long way away. He drew in a deep breath, let it out in deeper sigh, and fidgeted with his shirt pocket, then looked up. "Don't suppose you have any cigarettes? Smoked my last one at the station, couldn't afford more."
        "No, I'm sorry, I don't smoke."
        The corners of Billy's mouth lifted. "Figured as much. Bet you don't drink, either."
        "That would be correct," Fraser admitted, feeling somewhat sheepish, though it really wasn't that unusual.
        Billy snorted, eyeing him with a grin. "Okay, you've got to have some kind of bad habit. Please tell me you hump like a mink, or haunt strip joints or something."
        Fraser blushed, and Billy groaned. "Christ, the man's a fucking saint! Jesus, Ben! What do you do for fun?"
        Fraser thought about that. He supposed his diversions would seem a little tame to someone like Billy. "Well, I read, I walk, sometimes I listen to music, or play guitar. Sometimes I go out with my friend."
        Those luminous eyes pinned him. "Friend? Singular?"
        Fraser felt a momentary sense of emptiness so strong it was actually painful. A hole in himself that seemed as if it would never be filled. He closed his eyes, trying to force it to abate before it showed.
        "Sorry, it's none of my business. I'm being an asshole, you should tell me to fuck off."
        Billy's voice was apologetic, and despite the off-color language, the gentleness of it made the lump in Fraser's throat swell, so he shook his head to let the other man know he wouldn't do that.
        "Let me guess, you don't swear either?"
        The warm amusement in the other man's tone, not mocking, but rather oddly inclusive, almost undid Fraser completely. He turned away to hide his lack of control, and a moment later felt a hand on his shoulder.
        "Hey, look, I snotted up your shirt, only fair you get to do mine." Billy paused a moment, then spoke again. "Um, something happen? You and your friend have a fight?"
        Ben shook his head again, not trusting his voice, resisting the almost overwhelming urge to take Billy up on his offer of comfort. For some reason the fact that he was a complete and utter stranger made it seem all right. Why was it he could allow his feelings to show with someone he would likely never see again after he left the Consulate, but could never reveal them to those closest to him?
        "Tell you what, I'll show you mine if you show me yours," Billy said in a sly, cajoling tone.
        Fraser snapped around to stare at the other man in shock.
        Billy grinned back at him. "Ha! Gotcha. I just meant maybe we could sort of trade stories, and you can think of things to say to make me feel better and I'll do the same for you. You look like you got your share of problems yourself. Too bad you don't drink. Getting drunk makes it so it doesn't hurt to talk."
        Now that was an argument in favor of drinking. The only one he'd ever heard that tempted him in the slightest, but having seen in others that once the alcohol wore off things always seemed to be as bad or worse, Fraser shook his head, and cleared his throat. "I realize it's not precisely in the same league, but my grandmother swore by a cup of tea," he offered.
        There was a moment of silence, then Billy laughed softly. "So did mine. Sounds good."

* * *

        They sat in the Consulate kitchen, drinking tea, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches Ben had made after realizing Billy was hungry, and talking. Ben learned rather more about touring punk-rock bands than he'd ever had any desire to know, but it was interesting to have a glimpse into that world. Something else to add to his store of knowledge. Fraser gently kept drawing Billy out, knowing he hadn't yet come to the source of the pain that was written so clearly in his gaze. He resisted the other man's attempts to get him to talk. Focusing on someone else's problems helped him avoid his own. He was perfectly aware that was what he was doing, and, strangely, he suspected that Billy was aware of it as well, judging by the shrewd, searching glances he surprised on occasion when Billy thought he wasn't paying attention.
        Fraser excused himself and went to his office to check on a response on his query. There was one, so he returned to the kitchen, and found that Diefenbaker had deigned to come out from wherever he'd been sulking since Fraser had refused to get him an ice-cream when the vending truck passed, and was sitting at Billy's side with his head on the man's thigh, looking quite revoltingly blissful as Billy absently massaged his ears and ruff. Billy looked up as Fraser entered the room, and smiled.
        "Nice dog. Yours?"
        "Actually, Diefenbaker is half wolf, and as for whether he's mine, well, I suppose he is, in a manner of speaking. He's certainly my responsibility, though it's his choice whether or not he remains here. I sometimes believe chooses to stay with me simply so he can live in Chicago and eat junk food instead of having to hunt and fend for himself in the wild. And he shouldn't be harassing you like that."
        Billy looked at the wolf in his lap, and grinned. "He's okay, so long as he doesn't have a thing for sausages."
        The sentence was accompanied by a wink, and Fraser had to think for a moment to understand, then he dropped his eyes to the paper he held, a little rattled by the other man's easy, bawdy humor. "I received that reply from Ottawa, so if you'll come back to my office I'll get started on your paperwork."
        Billy nodded, gently nudged Dief's head off his leg with his elbow, and stood to limp behind Fraser out to his office, carrying his mug of tea. Fraser took his place at the typewriter, and Billy settled gingerly onto the other chair.
        "Birth date?"
        "October twenty-fourth, nineteen-sixty."
        Fraser looked at the passport copy to confirm that, then looked back at Billy, startled. He would have sworn the other man was younger than that. That made them closer in age than he'd imagined.
        Billy looked back at him, eyebrows lifted. "Did I get it wrong?" he asked, one corner of his mouth quirking upward in an uncertain smile.
        "No, no sorry. That's quite correct. Mother's maiden name?"
        "Anne Mary Machlis."
        Fraser typed, then looked up. "Car theft?"
        Billy blinked at him for a moment, looking puzzled, then he slowly started to smile. "Told you I was a juvie. Regular little asshole, 'til I met Joe . . . " his smile faded, and a shudder went through him. He closed his eyes, and quickly brought up his mug to take a drink.
        There it was, Fraser thought. The pain. It must somehow be related to this 'Joe' person. If he'd put Billy on the straight-and-narrow, he must have been a good person. "Was Joe a social worker?"
        Billy choked on his tea, and for a few seconds Fraser thought he was going to have to Heimlich the man. Finally he managed to breathe, wiped his eyes, and came up laughing.
        "Jesus. That's a good one. He'd've loved that. No, Joe Dick was an asshole too. He and I, we started the band, and that kept us outta trouble. Well, mostly." The smile evaporated again, and he sighed. "God-fucking-damn him. Why'd he have to . . ." Billy's eyes filled with tears once more, and he carefully placed his mug on the desk. "Sorry. Got to use the can." He got up and left the room.
        Fraser waited a moment, staring after him thoughtfully, then he moved over to the computer, pulled up web-browser window, and typed in a query. A few moments later it returned several hits, and he pulled up the first one. It was from an Edmonton paper, a story and obituary on one Joseph Mulgrew, aka Joe Dick, former lead singer for a band called Hard Core Logo, who had apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound eight days earlier. The pieces fit.
        He accessed the second hit; a concert review which read more like a play-by-play of a boxing match. The last paragraph in the story mentioned the suicide. It had happened that same night. He tried to imagine how he would have felt had Ray died after that fight at the shipyard, before they had resolved their anger, their hurt. He shuddered. God. No wonder Billy was hurting. He heard the toilet flush distantly, and quickly closed the browser. Let him come to it in his own time. Don't force it.
        By the time Billy had limped back into the room, Fraser had completed the duplicate passport request and faxed both the photocopied passport and the replacement request to Ottawa. They would courier the new passport back to the Consulate next day. He turned to find Billy standing in the doorway watching him, tiny beads of moisture clinging to his hairline, betraying the fact that he'd splashed cold water on his face, trying to keep control. How familiar that was. His expression was carefully neutral now. Having seen how animated and expressive he normally was, it seemed alien to Fraser that he could be so still.
        "Look, I've been here too long. I need to let you go home. It's late."
        "Actually, this is 'home,'" Ben admitted, with a slight nod toward the cot behind the desk.
        Billy's eyes widened. "Christ, they make you sleep here?" he exclaimed in appalled tones. "Isn't that kind of like slavery?"
        "Oh, no. It's purely voluntary. After my apartment building was incinerated by a performance arsonist, I just found it more convenient to stay here."
        "A performance arsonist?" Billy asked, bemusedly. "Now there's one we never thought of. But anyway,
if you could just let me use the phone to call a hotel and a cab, I'll get out of your hair. Uh, and if I could maybe hit you up for that emergency cash you mentioned, so I can actually pay for the hotel and the cab." He smiled wryly. "Feels weird, hitting you up for money."
        "You're not. You're making a perfectly reasonable request of a consular official. We keep funds on hand here for this very reason. You aren't the first person to need to replace stolen funds, nor, I'm sure, will you be the last."
        "Oh. Well, that's different then."
        Fraser nodded. "Quite. Wait here, I'll get the cash and the documents you'll need to sign for it."
        Billy nodded, and settled carefully back on his chair. His face went back to being expressionless, and Ben stifled a sigh as he left the room. It was clear that for some reason the other man had decided not to speak any further of his pain. Apparently tea was simply not conducive to heart-to-heart conversations. Perhaps he should have gotten a bottle of Scotch from the Consulate's liquor supply. He went into the Inspector's office and found the documents he needed, opened the safe and removed seven U.S. fifty-dollar bills, and then relocked it.
        Fraser wished he could think of some way to get Billy to stay, to talk longer, to get to the heart of his pain. As a peace officer trained in suicide prevention he knew that a person who had been close to a suicide was actually far more likely to make such an attempt himself than someone who had never known that kind of tragedy. Logically it would seem that the opposite should be true, but it was not. The feelings of loss and guilt could be overwhelming, and he strongly suspected that was the emotional state Billy currently inhabited. Frankly, Ben was afraid for him. For a moment he considered withholding the money, or finding some legal way to keep Billy confined to the Consulate, but had no documentable reason to do so. Billy's legal offenses had occurred long ago, and had no outstanding warrants or judgements. No. There was simply nothing he could do.
        Feeling even more dispirited than he had earlier that evening, he walked back to his office. Billy was just putting down the phone and closing the phone book as Ben entered the room. Probably making a hotel reservation, or calling a cab, as he'd said he was going to. When he looked up, his eyes were dark and haunted. Fraser resisted the urge to reach out and hold the man again. Circumstances would not allow it now. He forced a pleasant expression to his face, and placed two documents on the desk in front of the other man.
        "Here you are. As it will likely take a day or two for your credit and bank cards to be reissued, I've taken the liberty of drawing three-hundred and fifty dollars for you in US funds. If you'll sign the receipt and the note of hand for it, it's yours."
        Billy looked startled. "Hey, I don't need that much. Shit, that'd last me a week, at least."
        "You can always return whatever you don't use when you repay the rest. Travel can often be more expensive than one expects."
        Billy chuckled wryly. "Yeah, especially when your best friend lets Thelma and Louise fuck off with all your cash . . . " Pain suddenly tightened his features, and he shook his head. "Christ, let it go, asshole. Let it go," he said, clearly talking to himself, not Fraser.
        "Let what go?" Ben asked gently, hoping it might prompt him to begin talking again.
        "Never mind. It's nothing." Billy leaned forward and scrawled his signature on both documents. "There. My cab will be here in a couple of minutes." He pushed himself to his feet, and looked down. "Guess I better go put my own pants back on."
        "I don't need those at the moment, why don't you keep them until you come back to retrieve your new bank-cards? With your injured knee, your jeans may be difficult to get into."
        Billy looked up, startled, fingering the fleece on his thigh. "These are yours?"
        Fraser nodded. Billy had an odd look on his face. "Oh, um, I just figured they were loaners you kept around here for tourists dumb enough to get mugged. Thanks, that's really nice of you. I'll make sure they get washed before I bring them back."
        "Don't worry about that, I'm just happy to have been able to help. " He wished he could do more to help, but apparently that wasn't fated.
        Billy went back to the parlor and put his boots back on. Looking down at himself, he grinned. "Man, I look like a fucking geek. Sweats and boots. All I need is a watch-cap and mitts, and I could pass for homeless. Which I would be tonight, if not for you. I really do appreciate everything, you've been cool, Ben."
        He held out a hand, Ben took it, and they shook hands a little awkwardly.
        "Again, I'm happy to have been of assistance. And it's been a pleasure meeting you."
        Billy made that rude snorting noise again. "Oh yeah. I'm a fucking barrel of laughs." Without waiting for Fraser to reply, he picked up his jeans and guitar case and headed for the front door.
        Ben followed to wait with him. "Where will you be staying?" he asked, somehow unable not to.
        "Dunno. Wherever the cab driver takes me, I guess."
        Fraser frowned. That lack of destination bothered him. "If I may make a suggestion, there's a moderately priced motel not far from here. It's not luxurious, but serviceable. I can give the driver directions if you like."
        "Serviceable works. I'm not picky."
        Ben heard a car pull up outside, and opened the door, revealing a Yellow cab waiting at the curb. "Your ride. I'll carry your guitar, and you should take my arm down the stairs."
        "Ben, I'm a little banged up, not crippled."
        "As you say, however, you did have trouble getting up the stairs earlier, and going down them puts as much stress on the joint as coming up them does, so I suggest. . . "
        "Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. You want another merit badge. Fine. I'll just pretend I'm a little old lady and you can help me cross the street. Sure you don't want to just carry me?" he asked, with a wink and a lightning-fast grin.
        For a moment Fraser was seriously tempted to do so, just to see the expression on Billy's face, but he restrained himself and picked up the guitar instead. Billy put a hand on his arm, leaning a little as they descended the stairs. He opened the door of the cab and carefully placed the guitar inside, then turned to give directions to the driver before straightening. Billy was looking at him intently.
        "Look, if you ever need anything, I'm there. I mean it."
        Fraser nodded, knowing he did; knowing he would never take advantage of it, either. "Good night then," he said, still wishing he could have thought of some reason to detain the other man, feeling almost despairing that he could not.
        "'Night." Billy took a step toward the cab, then stopped and looked at Fraser again, his face tense and pale. "Christ! I can not do this. Look, I know I'm the world's biggest pussy for asking this, but I . . . I just can't handle being alone. I just need someone to keep me from thinking about . . . things. Do you think you could come with me? Talk some more?"
        Profound relief swept through Ben, and he nodded instantly. "Certainly. Just give me a moment to close up." He gestured toward the Consulate.
        Billy nodded. "No problem, we'll wait. The driver won't mind a few extra bucks, and I'll get him to put the guitar up front."
        Fraser stepped back into the building and shut down the computer in his office, then realized he was still half in uniform. He couldn't go out like that. He shook his head, and removed his boots and jodhpurs as quickly as he could, and pulled on a pair of jeans instead, then shoved his feet into his hiking boots and yanked the shorter laces into place. Dief stood up then, looking up at him expectantly and he hesitated, then shook his head.
        "I'm sorry, Dief. I'll be back later, but first I need to make sure he's all right. I would take you, but most lodging facilities don't allow animals."
        Dief settled back down with a soft whine.
        "Thank you, I do appreciate your understanding."
        Shrugging into his jacket, Fraser grabbed his hat, shut off the lights, and locked and closed the door behind him. Billy was still standing next to the cab, and an expression of relief flashed across his face as he saw Fraser emerge.
        "Thought maybe you changed your mind," he said softly.
        "Actually, I changed my clothes," Ben swept a hand toward his jeans, and Billy's gaze followed.
        "Right, no more funny pants," he said, grinning. "You get in first, that way I don't have to scoot."
        Fraser nodded and ducked into the cab. A moment later Billy was easing himself in, wincing as he tried to find a comfortable position for his leg.
        "If you turn toward me, and put your feet on this side of the divider, it will put less stress on the joint." Fraser suggested as Billy pulled the door closed and the driver pulled into traffic.
        Billy nodded, and did so. He had long legs. Very long. Like Ray's. Ben wondered for a moment if those long legs were currently tangled with a more feminine pair, somewhere in a hotel room in Acapulco. He shuddered, swallowing hard, pushing that image out of his mind.
        "Ben, you okay?" Billy asked.
        Fraser opened eyes he didn't realize he'd closed to find the other man studying him attentively.
        "Yes, I'm fine," he lied.
        Billy's gaze narrowed, and one corner of his mouth lifted. "Yeah, you're about as fine as I am. Y'know, I think there's a couple of really crappy liars in this cab."
        Fraser found himself half-smiling back. "I suspect you may be correct."
        Billy nodded. "Thought so."

* * *

        The rest of the brief cab ride was accomplished in silence. Arriving at the motel, Ben carried the in guitar and waited while Billy checked in. From where he stood, Ben couldn't hear their conversation, but after one exchange the clerk's eyes flickered from Billy to Fraser and back with bright curiosity. Billy shook his head, grinned, and said something about a bodyguard, loudly enough for Ben to hear. The clerk shrugged and turned his attention back to the task at hand. Money changed hands, as did Billy's jeans. Fraser assumed he was handing them over to be laundered. A few moments later, Billy turned and motioned for him to follow. Luckily there was an elevator, as the room was on the fourth floor and Billy's knee might not have been able to handle the stairs.
        The small room was anonymous, even barren. It could have been anywhere, in any city. Wallpaper and bedspread in muted greens, a bureau, a desk, a television, and of course, a bed. A king-sized bed. Which reminded him of his painful speculation in the cab, and he had to distract himself, by placing the guitar case carefully against the wall and divesting himself of his jacket and hat. By the time he finished, Billy had pulled one of the pillows out from beneath the covers and propped it against the wall, and was seated on the edge of the bed trying to get his boot off, flinching as the torquing movements hurt his knee.
        Fraser moved to kneel beside him, cupping his calf in one hand, taking the boot in the other and slipping it off in one smooth motion. Suddenly he was intensely aware of the intimacy of their respective positions, and also of how much this man looked like Ray. He felt his temperature rising in a very unexpected way, and had to remind himself that this was a stranger in need of aid, not his partner. Even if it were his partner, he ought not be thinking such things about him. Forcing himself to be impersonal, he repeated the actions on the other side, then nodded for Billy to swing his good leg up onto the mattress, while he lifted the injured one and eased it down onto the bed. Noting a wince, he fished the other pillow from beneath the covers and slid it beneath Billy's knee so it was no longer flat against the bed. Finished, he glanced at Billy's face to find the other man gazing back at him intently, almost speculatively. Fraser cleared his throat.
        "I should go down to the desk and see if they have any aspirin. And some ice. You need something for that," he said, nodding toward his leg.
        "I'd rather have a bottle of Scotch and a some smokes," Billy said a little petulantly.
        "Neither of those substances are particularly conducive to the healing process. In point of fact, both of them are quite deleterious to your health."
        Billy snorted. "That's the point, Ben. It's that whole live-fast-die-young-leave-a-good-looking-corpse mind set. 'Course, no way I can do that last one so why the hell I'm bothering with the first two is a good question."
        Ben studied him, reminded once more of Ray. 'Do you think I'm attractive?' seemed to echo a little plaintively in his ears.
        "I think you would make a very attractive corpse," he said thoughtlessly.
        The blue eyes widened, and then Billy chuckled. "I kind of think maybe you meant that as a compliment, but I'm not really sure. Do I need to be worried here? Do they let Boy-Scout Mounties be serial killers?"
        Fraser suddenly realized what he'd just said, and felt his face go hot. "Oh good lord! I didn't mean that the way it . . ."
        Billy laughed again. "Nah, I know that. Don't worry about it. Look, sit down will you? You're making me nervous."
        Fraser looked around, realized there was no chair in the room, and started to lower himself to the floor.
        Billy sighed loudly. "Christ, Ben, getting mugged isn't contagious. It's a big bed, sit over here. I think I can keep my hands to myself."
        Startled, Ben stared at him, saw nothing but good-natured teasing on that expressive face, and relaxed a little. That jest had been a little too close for comfort, as if the other man had somehow sensed his thoughts a moment earlier. He settled onto the bed, shoulders against the wall. Billy looked over at him, and shook his head.
        "Goddamn, I never saw anybody sit at attention before. Do you ever slouch? Even a little bit?"
        Ben felt himself go red, and deliberately unstiffened his back just a little. "Is that better?"
        "Is what better?" Billy asked.
        Ben was about to point out that he'd actually relaxed, when he noticed the gleam in the other man's eyes and the tiny upcurve of one corner of his mouth, and he realized he was being teased. Again. He took it as a personal challenge and brought up his knees, feet flat on the bed, leaned forward and wrapped his arms around his knees, which he knew would produce a noticeable curve in his spine. Then he realized he still had his shoes on and quickly swung his feet down to the floor again. As soon as he'd done that, he heard Billy snickering happily.
        "I knew it. You can't! Jesus Christ, Ben, were you raised by Martha Stewart or something?"
         "Martha who?" Fraser asked blankly.
        "Never mind. I can't believe I even know who she is. That's what living in LA will do to you. I watch too fucking much television." He was quiet for a moment, fingers fidgeting with the pocket on his flannel shirt, then he let his head fall back against the pillow with a sigh. "Shit, I would kill for a cigarette, but I hurt, and somebody won't go get me any," he said, with a narrow-eyed look at Ben. "And do not tell me I should quit."
        Ben, who had been about to say that very thing, closed his mouth and nodded. Billy was quiet for a moment, staring at the ceiling, then he looked over at him again.
        "So, who's 'Ray?'"
        Fraser stiffened. "Ray?" he asked, trying for nonchalance and failing miserably.
        "Yeah. When you came to the door, you said 'Ray', then you said you'd mistaken me for someone else."
        "Ah. Well, Ray is my. . . my partner. Unofficially, of course, as I have no jurisdiction here."
        "Mmm. He usually come by so late?"
        "Occasionally," Fraser admitted.
        "He the friend you mentioned?"
        Billy really was amazingly perceptive. Disconcertingly so. Ben thought for a moment, then realized that perhaps this was the way he could get Billy to talk about what had happened. By opening up, by revealing some of his own private pain, it would encourage the other man to do the same. And again, it seemed as if opening up to a complete stranger was precisely what he needed, since he simply could not do so with anyone he knew. He leaned down and started unlacing his boots so he wouldn't have to look at Billy as he spoke.
        "Yes. He is. Or was. No, is."
        "Don't sound too sure."
        Ben pulled off his boots and set them beside the bed, then lifted his feet to its flat surface and leaned back against the wall, assuming what he hoped was a marginally relaxed pose.
        "Yes. I'm sure he is my friend. What he is not is more than that."
        Billy shifted position a little to look at his face. Ben stared blankly at the far wall, refusing to meet those luminous eyes, eyes which saw far too clearly, it seemed.
        "Gonna explain that?"
        Ben sighed, and locked his hands around his knees, staring at them now. "I should first ask you a rather personal question, one whose answer will determine whether you want me to remain and talk with you, or leave immediately."
        "Hunh?" Billy said, sounding amused. "Was that English or some other language?"
        "Forgive me. I'm afraid I tend to become somewhat bombastic when under stress. It's a coping mechanism."
        "Am I stressing you?" Billy said, regarding him closely.
        "Not precisely, although the situation does have stressful components."
        "If you don't want to get into it, it's okay. I get that."
        For an instant he sounded almost painfully like Ray. "I . . . think I would like to 'get into it', actually. I suspect I need to. If you're willing to listen."
        "I told you, you need anything, I'm there."
        "Before you say that, I should ask that question I spoke of."
        "Ask away."
        Ben cleared his throat, feeling a blush rise just at the thought of asking this. He felt the need to preface the question. "I must ask that you not speak of this to anyone. At least, not in the same breath with my name. It could present certain difficulties for me, career-wise."
        "Lips are sealed, Ben. Not a word to anyone. On my . . . well, I'd say on my honor but I haven't got any. How about I swear it on my guitar?"
        Ben knew that for Billy, that was probably as binding as swearing on a Bible. He nodded. "Thank you. So. My question . . . " Blood rose in his face, hotter than before. "What is your stance . . . ah, I should say, your personal opinion, on-- well, on same-sex relations?" There. He'd said it. Finally. He'd rarely found a simple question so difficult to ask.
        Silence. Fraser kept his gaze firmly on his hands, barely breathing as he waited for an answer. He heard Billy draw in a long, shaky breath, then let it out in a sigh.
        "Fuck. You?"
        Although the juxtaposition of those two words could have led him to believe he had just been told to leave, the phrasing said otherwise. It was a statement of surprise, and a question. He closed his eyes, tightly, holding back the tears. "Yes, me. Not him," he said, his voice barely a whisper.
        "Oh, Christ . . ." Weight shifted on the bed, a hand touched his shoulder, rubbed awkwardly. "That-- well, that sucks."
        Ben nodded, half laughing, half weeping. It felt so good to get it out. To say it to someone, even as painful as it was. And he was so relieved that Billy hadn't turned away in disgust. The hand slid down to his back, moving over his shoulders, his spine, oddly soothing. He managed to get his breathing under control, and his tears a moment later. He drew in a deep breath, and wiped his eyes.
        "I'm sorry, I don't usually . . ."
        "No problem," Billy interrupted, softly. "Seems t' be the night for it."
        There was a moment of silence, but Billy's hand never stopped moving on his back in a slow, almost hypnotic circling. It occurred to Ben that no one had touched him like this since his mother had died. Certainly Ray touched him. A physically demonstrative person, Ray thought nothing of flinging an arm around his shoulders, of patting his shoulder, holding his arm, dragging him around corners and behind cover, even an occasional hug. He touched Ben so often that it was sometimes enough to be distressing, since it only left him wanting more. And of course, he had touched and been touched by Victoria, but that had been entirely different, overtly sexual. However, this sort of sustained, voluntary, yet nonsexual touch was completely absent from his physical lexicon. It made him feel strangely childlike.
        "So. You want to talk about it?" Billy asked.
        Fraser sighed. "There's little to tell."
        "You ever touch him?" Billy asked suddenly, his voice strangely fierce, his body as tense as a drawn bow.
        "Well, of course. All the time. It would be difficult to work together without touching . . . "
        "Not that way, idiot. I mean touch him. Fuck him."
        Ben was shocked speechless for a moment, then he finally managed to find his voice. "Good Lord, no! Of. . . of course not! That's just. . . just . . . no!"
        The tension seemed to flow out of Billy like water. "Okay. Okay, that's good. I mean, if he's not, like you said."
        Ben shouldn't have understood that, but he did. Billy meant that if Ray did not feel the same way about Ben that Ben felt about Ray. Ben tried to regulate his suddenly quick breathing, swallowing to moisten his dry mouth. Hearing that said so brazenly had brought images to mind that were far too powerful for comfort. Billy sat up suddenly, turning away, swinging his legs off the bed and lurching to his feet with a soft grunt of pain. He started to pace, limping.
        "I shouldn't've said that. I had no business asking that. I mean, you wouldn't. I can just look at you and know that. You would never touch anybody unless they wanted you to."
        A sudden, stealing guilt came over Ben as he watched the other man's pained movements. "I did, once, though. In a way," he confessed, not entirely sure why.
        Billy swung around to stare at him. "You? No way."
        "Yes. I . . . I kissed him. So to speak."
        "Either you did or you didn't."
        "We were trapped, underwater. I had to give him air."
        Billy looked disgusted. "Ben, that's not a kiss."
        Ben closed his eyes. "I know. But I wanted it to be. I dream of it as if it were."
        "Dreaming and doing aren't the same. You know that. I know that." He seemed to shiver, and turned to draw aside the curtain and stare out the window at the wall of the building next door. When he spoke again, it was so quietly that Ben had to strain to hear him. "Even if it was, a kiss-- that means something. It's not just a fuck with someone who's too screwed up to say no."
        As Ben tried to puzzle out the meaning behind those words, Billy put a hand on the glass, palm flat, fingers looking spidery against the dark, then he curled his fingers into a fist, tapped the glass lightly with his knuckles, then slightly harder. Suddenly alert, Fraser rolled off the bed and launched himself at the slender figure, grabbing his wrist just as he drew back his arm, muscles fully tensed to smash his fist right through the glass. On the way down he managed to twist his body enough so that he ended up taking the brunt of the fall as they hit the floor. Billy struggled, fighting his hold, surprisingly strong for all his thinness. It seemed as if the more he tried to hold him down, the harder he fought, until Ben resorted to wrapping both arms around him and pinning him to the floor, using gravity to subdue him.
        "Billy, stop. Please, stop. I don't want to hurt you, and I'm not going to let you hurt yourself. Stop."
        Abruptly the smaller man's body went lax. Wary of a ruse, Ben waited a moment, then he felt the telltale shudders of sobs as they racked the body beneath his in eerie silence. He shifted his weight, rolling to his side, still holding Billy, soothing a hand down his back, trying to mimic that sexless comforting Billy had offered him earlier.
        "You should talk about it," Ben said softly. "You have to, or it will eat you alive. Tell me. I'll listen."
        The blond head rolled slightly, side to side. Negative. A gasping breath, more tears.
        "Billy, please. You listened to me. Let me listen to you. Let me help. Tell me what you're feeling."
        "How could he do that?" A whisper.
        "What did he do, Billy?" Ben prompted softly, hoping this time he would continue.
        Billy sniffled, coughed, laid his head against his forearm, not looking at Ben. "Does he know, your friend? Have you told him?"
        Well, he was talking. The wrong subject, but talking, nonetheless. Progress of a sort. Ben sighed. "No. I can't. It would-- well, it just wouldn't be a good idea."
        "You don't know that," Billy said, a world of sorrow in his voice. "Could make a difference. A big difference. I know. Damn him, if he'd ever said a word, if he'd just fucking told me. . ." His voice broke, but he went on. "How could he fucking do that to me when I'm starting to think I can trust him again? Just like before, he doesn't ask, just thinks he knows what I want, what I need. Fucks me again, puts it on me, like it's my fault. I was gonna tell him! I just wanted to tell him when we were up, after the concert. But he can't wait. Can't just ask me, when that asshole Bruce tells him first. No, he has to fuck me again, just like before. Except this time I can't even get mad at him, 'cause he's fucking dead!"
        The words stopped abruptly, and a moment of quiet ensued. Ben felt a little dazed. It was becoming clear that Billy was holding in more than the suicide of a close friend. Although he knew he was naive in many ways, he was fairly certain that Billy had just used the word 'fuck' in two, or perhaps even three completely different ways. Certainly he was using it as an expletive, which Ben was learning to cope with, and once in the common parlance of 'to do wrong' but the other use was the word's most basic meaning. Sex. That in turn seemed to tie into the strange tension he'd observed in Billy earlier, when he'd asked 'You ever touch him?' That question took on a new and disturbing significance now. Before he could think of what to say, Billy took a deep breath, and seemed to pull into himself somehow.
        "Sorry. That was a fucking stupid way to say you should tell your friend how you feel. Maybe kiss him. I'd've been . . . Jesus, none of this shit would've happened if Joe could've . . . if he'd just told me! How he felt. Or showed me. Anything to let me know it wasn't about the band, or the money, or a contract. That it was about me. But no, he can't fucking tell me, he has to let me think it's all about anger, and power, and control, which it was, too, but it was more than that and he never told me. For five damned years he lets me think that, right up until he . . . And even now I'm not sure. When all it would have taken was a kiss."
        "Until he what, Billy?" Ben asked, knowing it would hurt, but knowing Billy needed to say it.
        Billy's slender frame tensed even more. "Until he put a bullet through his fucked-up asshole brain, goddamn him. But I can't say that. You can't be mad at a dead person!"
        There. Finally. Part of it anyway. It was almost as much of a relief to Ben to hear him say it as it must be for Billy to have spoken of it at last. This he could help with. This was within his realm of understanding. "Yes, you can. It's perfectly normal to be angry right now," Ben told him gently. "It's actually a very common reaction to the death of a loved one. He left you behind to try to pick up the pieces, left you to clean up the mess, to feel guilty, to wonder if there was something you could have said, or done differently . . ."
        Billy moaned, shuddering. "Oh God. I know there was. It was my fault. If I'd told him about Jenifur, told him, instead of those assholes on the film crew. . . Christ! I practically put the damned gun in his hand and told him to pull the trigger!"
        "No, you did not," Ben said firmly. "There are always other paths. That he chose that one says that he was already well along it before whatever you think you did occurred. Once a person has reached that place, they need professional help, and there is little which even the most concerned friend can do to turn them aside. Joe made a conscious choice to exclude you from his confidence, not to speak of his feelings, or his intentions. You can't be expected to have read his mind."
        Ben paused a moment, then went on to the more delicate subject that needed addressing. "He also, from what you said, made another conscious decision several years ago, one that resulted in a terrible breach of trust between you and perhaps precipitated this outcome. Now, perhaps I've misinterpreted, and forgive me if I seem to pry, but did Joe . . . hurt you?" Ben frowned, irritated with himself. That was far too coy, and too easily misinterpreted. "That is, did he force you . . . to have sex with him?"
        There was a long, tense silence, then finally Billy sighed, and nodded against his arm. "Yeah. I mean, I think so. I was pretty screwed up. I'd been drinking, a lot. He was coked up, but more together than me, by a long shot. I was trying to talk to him, and he wasn't listening. I was furious at him, he blew the deal. Again. Had to screw up another shot at success-- I swear he was scared to death of that, like it would fucking contaminate him or something. So he pissed in the guy's drink, for God's sake! Stupid! So I keep drinking and getting madder, and all the sudden he wants to make nice, and he's touching me."
        Deep breath then. A slight shift of position, easing the pressure on his injured knee, which made Ben feel guilty and want to stop him, to make him get back on the bed where he wasn't in so much pain, but he didn't want to stop the flow of words yet. Billy needed to talk. And Ben needed to listen. To help. It was almost a compulsion.
        "Now, don't get me wrong here. It wasn't the first time. We'd messed around some before, nothing serious, just that 'whatever feels good' kind of stuff, sometimes with girls, sometimes not, it didn't really matter. But I didn't want him to touch me then, I was mad, you know, and the last thing I want is him all over me. Especially when I figure out he wants more than we ever did before. So I tell him that, or I think I did, and he keeps going, and I'm too plowed to think straight, and he's a big guy, and . . ."
        The torrent of words stopped abruptly, then started again in a different place, like a record skipping over a scratch. Ben tried not to let his dismay and upset communicate itself to Billy through his touch, trying to remain calm, and relaxed, though he was appalled by what he was hearing.
        "Maybe he was just too messed up to hear me. Maybe he thought I didn't mean it. But whatever it was, after that I just couldn't be around him, couldn't trust him anymore. I mean, I may be an asshole but even I know you don't do stuff to people when they say no. And the stupid thing is, if he'd just fucking told me how he felt, I wouldn't have said no. Idiot! I loved him! More than anybody else in my whole damned life. Thought he loved me, too, until then. But that made me think he must not, 'cause you don't do that to people you love. So I left."
        Billy ended there as if he'd run out of words. Ben waited for him to go on, but he didn't. After a few seconds it became clear he was finished, and Ben slid his hand up to Billy's shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly.
        "Billy, what you did was right. You did what you had to do, for you. In situations like that, when one party is abusive, you have to get out."
        "He wasn't abus . . ." Billy began indignantly, then he stopped and thought for a moment. He turned his head a little to look at Ben with red-rimmed eyes. "Hunh. Never thought about it like that before. Thought he was a manipulative bastard, thought he was an asshole, maybe even fucked up beyond hope, but never really thought of abusive. But that was what he grew up with. What he knew."
        Ben studied him intently, hearing the unspoken 'we' behind those words. He suspected Billy too had come from a less than ideal childhood environment, though he seemed to have survived it better than many. Schooling his face to be carefully nonjudgmental, he nodded. "It's a terribly common pattern. You said you thought he loved you, and he may very well have done, but he probably had no idea how to go about expressing that love in a positive manner. Did he ever express regret over his actions?"
        Billy lifted a hand, rubbing his forehead, hiding his expressive face behind his palm as he did. "No. I mean, not really. Said he was sorry if he was a little rough, that's all. Like it was okay for him to fuck me but not for him to hurt me doing it. And the worst thing was, he made me. . ." his voice trailed off, and Ben saw the pale skin of his cheek darken behind his hand. "Never mind. You don't want to know that."
        "It's all right, Billy. You can tell me."
        A head shake, face still hidden behind his hand. "Can't."
        Clearly, the topic was something deeply personal, probably humiliating. After all Billy had already revealed, Ben could barely think of anything that could be worse, but clearly the other man thought it was. Perhaps it was time to make a change in venue. Curiously reluctant to forsake the feeling of that slender body against his own, he moved away, into a crouch beside him.
        "Would you roll onto your back, please?"
        Billy dropped his hand and looked at him, startled, and Ben thought he saw a hint of shame clouding his eyes for a moment before surprise replaced it. "Why?"
        "Don't worry, I intend nothing untoward," Ben assured him.
        That drew a sudden, swift smile. "Untoward? They teach you to talk like that at the Depot?"
        Ben smiled back, pleased by the break in the tension. "I'm afraid that was my grandmother's doing. She was most assiduous in the instruction of grammar and vocabulary."
Billy chuckled. "That explains a lot." He rolled onto his back with a slight wince as his knee flattened. Ben leaned down. "Now, if you would sit up, and place your arms around my neck . . ."
        Billy eyed him dubiously. "What for?"
        "Trust me?" Ben said, then wished he could snatch back the words as he remembered how little reason Billy had to trust anyone. Strangely, Billy didn't flinch or withdraw. He considered for a moment, then did as Ben had instructed. Ben felt rather as if he'd just been given a gift. Carefully he slid one hand around Billy's back, and the other beneath his legs, and cautiously balancing himself, he stood up. Billy's arms tightened automatically as he yelped in surprise.
        "What the fuck?"
        "I'm just moving you to the bed, your knee has been stressed enough." He moved toward the bed, carrying Billy easily, though not effortlessly. A moment later he was leaning down to place him on the mattress, and then tucking the pillow back beneath his knee again. "There. Better?"
        Billy stared up at him, wide-eyed, and shook his head as if to clear it. "You're weird, Ben."
        Despite himself, Ben found himself smiling. "Ray sometimes says I am a freak."
        "He's right. I mean, not that that's a bad thing, but . . ."
        Ben's smile broadened. "Understood. Now, I'm going to get some ice for that. Stay there."
        "Or you'll what?" Billy challenged.
        Ben couldn't think of an answer. The question disconcerted him. He shook his head. "Or you will be in pain, obviously."
        He turned to go, puzzled, fighting the conflicting feelings that Billy raised in him. He wanted to help him, to heal him, yet he was also attracted to him. He wasn't used to being attracted to two different people at the same time. It felt strange, and forbidden. As he picked up the ice-bucket and key-card and stepped out of the room in search of ice he tried to analyze his own reactions.
        Was the attraction he felt simply due to the fact that Billy looked like Ray? Certainly it didn't hurt. Was he somehow substituting one for the other? He didn't think so, but could not help but suspect himself of it, simply because the resemblance was so strong. They were alike in more than physical ways. Both men were vulnerable, wounded even. That attracted him. He frowned as he realized that. What did that say about his own mental state? He didn't want to think about that. Deliberately he moved into efficient mode, and locating the ice machine, he filled the container he held and went back to the room. He stopped in the bathroom and lifted out the plastic bag that lined the waste can. Emptying the ice-bucket into it, he twisted it tightly and tied it closed before wrapping it in a hand-towel from the rack behind the toilet.
        "Here we are, hold this for a moment," he said, handing the bundle to Billy as he reached down to carefully slip the leg of his sweat pants up above the other man's knee, above the elastic bandage, keeping his movements brisk and professional. "You should see a doctor about this as soon as possible, as you may have sprained it, or torn a ligament, and you don't want permanent damage to ensue. I remember a trapper outside of Yellow Knife who once went two weeks on a torn . . ."
        "Ben, stop," Billy said quietly.
        Ben stopped, his hands resting on Billy's bent knee, his head down.
        "Look at me."
        He looked up, slowly, hoping his emotions weren't written all over his face. Billy's eyes were shrewd and bright as he studied Ben's face. "Tell me about Ray."
        Relief. He hadn't figured it out. "Ray is . . . he's my best friend. Well, my only friend."
        "No. I don't believe that. But I believe that you believe it. Why are you so hard on yourself, Ben? I mean, you're not like me, you don't have 'loser' tattooed on your ass. You have a real job, a grown-up job that people respect. You're smart, you're kind, and good. You know how to talk, how to act. Shit, you're even fucking unbelievably gorgeous. Why can't you just let yourself be happy?"
        Ben looked away, unable to bear that brilliant scrutiny. "I don't know. I just don't . . . feel . . . good enough. Don't feel I deserve it."
        Billy laughed. "Christ, there's not much hope for me then, if you don't!"
        "No!" Ben exclaimed, looking up again. "This has nothing to do with you, not with you, or Ray, or anyone. It's simply . . . me. Who I am."
        "It's wrong, Ben. That's not who you should be."
        Ben sighed. "Very few of us are who we should be."
        Billy was quiet for a moment, then he sighed, too. "Well, you got that right. Ray. You were telling me about Ray. Do I remind you of him? You called me by his name outside the Consulate."
        Ben nodded. "Yes. The resemblance is . . . well, frankly, it's rather astonishing."
        Billy nodded, as if that made sense. He studied Ben for a moment longer, then his gaze flickered down to the towel-wrapped bundle in his hands. Silently he held it out and Ben took it, molding it carefully around Billy's knee, holding it in place. The cold seeped through the towel, through his hands. It felt good. Soothing. He always felt at home in the cold. The silence lengthened, not unpleasantly. He liked silence as well. Finally Billy spoke again.
        "When you had me on the floor, for a second I kind of thought you were Joe. He was about your size, your coloring. Except for the fact that you're not an asshole, and you're better-looking, you could be his brother. That's why I freaked out."
        "I'm sorry! I didn't realize . . ."
        Billy sighed, interrupting his apology. "Ben, I didn't tell you so you'd feel bad, I told you so you would know I understand. And it's okay."
        Ben stared at him, frowning a little, trying to puzzle out the meanings in those statements. There were many possibilities.
        "You want to kiss him?" Billy asked.
        It took Ben a moment to realize he meant Ray. Once he did, he nodded, a flush painting his face.
        "And more?" Billy prompted softly.
        He nodded again, somehow compelled to honesty by this man. He could never have admitted this to anyone else. Could barely even admit it to himself.
        "I wanted that, too. I wanted to kiss Joe. I wanted to . . . make love with him. Not just fuck. There's a difference, you probably don't know that. Even after he . . . even after that. Or maybe because of that. See, I loved him, and I wanted to know what it was like to make love instead of fucking. Fucking is all I've ever done. Bet you don't have a clue what I'm talking about, though. You've probably never fucked anybody in your whole damned life. And no, I don't mean I think you're a virgin so stop bristling," he said with an amused glance at Ben, who subsided. "I mean you just don't think in those terms. It's not part of your . . . vocabulary."
        Ben found himself listening with his whole being, unconsciously leaning toward the source of that soft, husky voice as if Billy held the key to something that had been locked away from him for years. His entire life, perhaps. Anticipation shivered through him, and he tried to push it away. Just because Billy's words could, with some imagination, be considered a prelude . . . no. They were simply words. Explanation. Nothing more. He must not let himself get carried away with unrealistic daydreams.
        "I guess now I'll never know if we could have had something more, or if it was too late for him." Billy carried on, conversationally, as if he was not speaking with incredible intimacy of things that Ben had never discussed with another living soul. "I think maybe it was too late for Joe a long time ago. But talking to you here, admitting what happened, makes me hope maybe it's not too late for me. I'm tired of being empty, Ben, I want more than that."
        Billy stopped and stared off at nothing, his gaze distant and unfocused. Ben watched his face, seeing shadows and the yearning in it. Waiting. He knew Billy wasn't finished yet, and after a moment that was proved out when the other man sighed and spoke again.
        "It's weird . . . I just found out I have a daughter. Her name is Billie." He sighed. "After me, I guess. She's about five years old, I don't know exactly. Shit. I don't even know her birthday. I never even knew she existed until a few days ago, her mother never told me. Still hasn't. I just figured it out on my own."
        Billy fidgeted nervously with his shirt pocket again, Ben guessed he was looking for cigarettes. A daughter? He tried not to think about the carelessness that implied. It was clear that Billy had come a long way from those days, and shouldn't be judged on those merits.
        "I, uh, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised she didn't tell me. I mean, I was not exactly somebody you'd want to play house with." He laughed drily. "Maybe I should be surprised I haven't had a string of paternity suits. It was like that on the road. A lot of anonymous fucking, rarely safe, because it wasn't easy if it was safe, because it didn't feel as good. Assholes, all of us. Idiots, too. I'm amazed I'm not dead now, or living on AZT. But I guess I'm just a lucky son of a bitch, I guess, since I'm clean.
        "But ever since Joe, I've wondered sometimes if any of them said no to me, and I was too fucked up to hear them. That scares the shit out of me, thinking that I could have done that. Gives me nightmares. Did I hurt anybody like that? I don't think so, but I don't know. And then he called, and like some stupid cow I went. I was hoping . . . well, you know what I was hoping for. Already told you that. But it was just like before. He hadn't changed at all, and I had. I moved on, he was still exactly the same. And I didn't know what to do to get past that."
        He shook his head, rubbed his hands over his face, through his hair, and shuddered. "Christ. You said that Joe didn't know how to love, and neither do I. Hard to learn what you've never had. But I-- I want to learn. I want to be able to say before I die that I know what love is." He finally looked back at Ben. "Don't you want to do that, Ben? Don't you want to say that?"
        The question seemed to go straight into Ben's heart like the shining blade of a well-honed knife. He felt his throat thicken, but nodded, blinking back tears. "Yes," he managed to choke out past the lump.
        "Then tell him. Show him. It's worth the risk. Believe me, I know. Better to risk feeling too much than to end up feeling nothing at all."
        Ben shook his head, feeling a desperate urge to run away from this too deep, too revealing conversation, yet somehow chained in place, saying things he had never imagined saying to anyone. "I can't. I don't . . . I'm not good at . . . I don't . . . I don't want him to go away," he whispered, feeling, and sounding, like a six-year-old child who had lost his mother. "Everyone I love goes away."
        "But at least you had them, Ben. That's more than a lot of people get."
        The truth of that felt like a sunrise. It had never occurred to Ben before that it was more than a lot of people had. He'd simply taken it for granted. Had thought everyone else had more.
        He looked up, to find Billy reaching out to him, his right hand extended, palm up in invitation. He closed his eyes. This wasn't him. He wanted it. But it wasn't him. He wanted it. The ice bag slid from numb fingers, slipped off the bed to the floor. He reached out, put his hand in that long, narrow-palmed one, allowed it to draw him forward.
        "Your hand's cold," Billy said softly.
        "Yes. The ice," Ben explained meaninglessly.
        Billy lifted Ben's hand and placed it square in the center of his chest. Against his palm Ben could feel the other man's heartbeat, fast, hard, as if he'd been running. Or was afraid. Fear. Billy was afraid. Just as he was afraid. Different reasons perhaps, but the same result. Two fearful hearts. He let his fingers spread out a little, soothing back and forth across that hard plane. Billy closed his eyes, leaned his head back against the wall, his palm resting against the back of Ben's hand as his fingers moved gently. Ben's gaze slid down that angular face, to the beautifully modeled mouth. He wanted to taste it. So much. Why was this so difficult? Why couldn't he just lean forward and . . .
        His lips came to rest on warm, satin-textured flesh. Slightly moist. Yielding. He brought his hands up, cupping the stubbled jawline, tipping Billy's head slightly to one side so he could seal their lips more closely. Strangely, now that he'd started, this wasn't difficult at all. Billy's lips parted at his urging, warm breath misting into his mouth. He licked out, tasting a faint hint of hours-ago tobacco, not terribly unpleasant, to his surprise. Tea. Peanut butter. Something else, unidentifiable, unique. He licked again and again, searching for that taste, finding it on palate, in the soft hollow between teeth and lips, then on tongue, which slid and tangled with his own as that yielding mouth came to life, suckling at his own, biting. Delightful. Exotic.
        Billy made a soft sound, definitely not a protest, and his arms slid around Ben's waist, pulling him down so their bodies were touching almost everywhere, one knee coming up alongside Ben's hip, making a space for Ben's body there, between his thighs. It was strange to feel hardness there, where his own body remembered a different configuration. A little to his surprise, he found the hardness under him was just as erotic as that barely-recalled softness. He wanted to touch, to explore this uncharted territory, so strangely familiar, yet so startlingly unfamiliar as well. To map it, to learn every nuance of it, every valley, peak, plane . . . the topography of desire.
        He let his hand slide down Billy's throat to his chest, a solid curve beneath a palm. A slight rise there beneath thin cotton. Nipple. He let his fingers take it, tugging softly, feeling it harden. Billy moaned into his mouth, body arching beneath his. Suddenly it was too much. Ben pulled away, almost panting, shaking his head.
        "No, this isn't right. I can't use you."
        "Shhh, you're not," Billy said, his hand caressing Ben's arm, moving over his shoulder, like before, only not like before, this time with sensual intent. "It's okay."
        "No. You don't understand. I don't want to make you a substitute. You don't deserve that. It's not right, it's not fair."
        "Nobody ever said life was fair, Ben," Billy said with a sigh. "But I understand." Billy's hand slid higher, up his throat, fingers threading into his hair, stroking. "I know it's wrong for me to use you as a substitute, too. For Joe. I know you don't love me, you love Ray and you know I don't love you, I loved Joe. But if . . . if we can be that for each other, do that for each other, we're not hurting anyone, are we?"
        Billy's voice was tentative, almost sorrowful, the hunger in it almost palpable, the need an echoing ache in his own flesh. No. They weren't hurting anyone. And it felt so good, to be held, to be close to someone. It had been so long. To feel the warmth and closeness of that wiry body against his own, to taste in Billy what he could not taste of Ray.
        "Ben, we don't have them. I know you love Ray, and I don't expect that from you. I just need to know it's possible, that people can have this. Let me feel that, let me pretend just for now right now that I can have that, that this is for me."
        Ben started to protest that, feeling that wasn't nearly enough, but Billy put his fingers over his mouth, shaking his head.
        "Let me give you what you can't, or won't let yourself have. It's okay, Ben. We can do this for each other. It's comfort, Ben. Nothing wrong with comfort."
        Billy's fingers exerted a gentle pressure against the back of Ben's neck, urging him to lower his head again, not pushing, easily resisted, should he want to. But he didn't want to. He wanted to yield. He wanted to comfort, and to be comforted. He let those fingers coax him down, let his mouth settle over the warmly welcoming lips beneath his own. Billy's tongue flickered against his mouth, clever, agile, teasing. He chased it with his own, found it, moved slickly. Resistance disappeared, and desire renewed itself; fire finding dry tinder. As he had started to once before, Ben let himself become an explorer, learning the unaccustomed terrain of this almost stranger's body with all his senses.
        Taste; the subtle salt of sweat, the sweetness of mouth and tongue, the bitter undertones of burning leaves. Scent; sweat again, faint, acrid, strangely rich. Soap. Something citrusy in his hair. A hint of smoke. Touch, the shifting of cloth beneath his fingers as he pushed Billy's shirt aside, then the living warmth of silky skin, a little loose over hollow belly, where grief had been feeding off him. He stroked softly, letting his fingers edge beneath the drooping waist of too-large sweatpants, felt the lithe form beneath him arch into his touch, breaking their kiss with a little shiver.
        "Mmmyeah," Billy sighed softly against his mouth.
        Sound; husky, low, breathless, the strange, erotic vibration of a hum against sensitive flesh. The soft clinging sound of lips parting, touching, parting again. Ben delved into that wet heat again, more fiercely now, letting himself slip the leash of his control, just a little, remembering somehow to temper his need with gentleness, wanting to give that comfort, to give Billy the reassurance he needed, though he wasn't entirely sure of its truth himself. He felt Billy respond, moving against him, mouth open, hands stroking up his flanks, the backs of his thighs, his buttocks, moving higher to tug the back of his t-shirt free of his jeans. Ben tensed in anticipation as those long fingers slipped beneath his shirt, splayed over his back, then began to move, callused fingertips playing unwritten chords on his skin.
        Ben moaned and shuddered. So long, so long untouched, he felt as if he were rediscovering sensation, as if his body had been asleep for years, and circulation was only now returning to his flesh. Painful, yet welcome. It came to him that he could not touch, or even see as much of Billy as he wanted to, mostly because he was lying on him. He shifted position, moving to lie beside him.
        "Hey . . ." Billy protested, frowning, and opening his eyes.
        Ben didn't speak, he just reached out and took the lower edge of Billy's shirt in his hands. Billy's protest died, and a smile curved his mouth. He lifted his arms, and Ben stripped his shirt up, and then off. Finally, sight; Billy had the look of someone who hadn't eaten properly in days, but there was a certain wasted beauty about him. The stubble-framed mouth, oddly angelic considering the words that tended to issue from it, traces of a subtle smile lingering at its corners. His eyes were closed again, their luminescence hidden, but even closed they held a sleepy sensuality. His chest was a bare, bony width sheathed in pale gold skin, like chamois, with light sienna nipples and only the faintest dusting of hair.
        Leaning over, Ben used his tongue to trace a border around one of those nubs, feeling the faint crinkle of fine blond hairs against his lips, then he breathed across saliva-damp skin and watched the skin pebble and tighten. Only then did he take it between his lips, wringing a soft cry from the other man as he sucked and tongued. Strange, to be so intently focused on giving pleasure, but to have that very focus return pleasure. Usually when he was focused, it was to the exclusion of all other sensory input, yet now it seemed only to heighten his own desire.
        Billy reached down and trailed his fingers across Ben's cheek, then slid them between his chest and Ben's mouth, breaking the suction. As he lifted his head, Billy reached out and began to unbuckle Ben's belt. Ben went still, suddenly nervous, but he didn't protest as Billy removed his belt, opened the button on his jeans, and then very slowly drew the front of his shirt out of his pants to match the back part, and then eased his hands beneath it, pushing it up. He got it bunched under Ben's arms, and looked him in the face with a smile and a quickly lifted eyebrow. Blushing, Ben finally got the hint, lifting his arms so Billy could draw his shirt the rest of the way off.
        Barechested, Ben felt achingly self-conscious. He'd always been embarrassed by his smooth, pale skin, had been teased about it at the Depot, in the barracks, along with so many other things. That had been a difficult time for him. He'd also always felt he was too thin, although compared to Billy he was positively bulky. But Billy's gaze was anything but mocking. He drew in a breath, reached out to touch, sliding his fingers down Ben's chest, making him shiver.
        "Beautiful," he breathed. "Fucking beautiful." Suddenly Billy was rolling to his knees, reaching for him, and just as suddenly he flinched. "Ouch, damn it! Fuck!" He collapsed onto his side, cradling his injured knee, then looked up and shot a startling grin at Ben, who was about to start fretting. "I'm okay. Just surprised me." He chuckled. "Shit, you got me so hot I forgot about it. How the hell am I supposed to do anything if I can't move?"
        Ben smiled. "I can move, so you don't need to."
        Billy closed his eyes and groaned, flopping onto his back with one hand over his heart. "Am I dead?"
        Concerned, Ben leaned over him. "Of course you're not dead, why would you say that?"
        Billy opened his eyes, mischief shining in them. "Because I am in fucking heaven, that's why, you idiot," he said affectionately, reaching up and hauling Ben down against him, mouth open and demanding. The kiss turned hard, almost fierce, both of them were panting by the time Ben drew back with a soft protest.
        "Sorry!" he gasped, suddenly remembering that Billy had already had one negative experience with a man. "Too hard!"
        Billy grinned fiercely. "Not too hard. I won't break, Ben. I may be scrawny but I'm strong."
        Ben's eyes narrowed. "You're not scrawny," he said adamantly. "Don't say that."
        The fierceness faded instantly, and Billy's smile turned sweet. "You're just as gorgeous inside as you are outside, aren't you, Ben?"
        Ben blushed, again. Lord, how he hated that tendency.
        Billy pulled him back, smiling. "You have better things to do," he said huskily. "Touch me, Ben. I need you to touch me. And I want to touch you." His hands went to Ben's jeans, to that unbuttoned waistband, finding the zipper, pausing there. His eyes lifted to Ben's, clearly asking permission. Swallowing with a suddenly-dry throat, Ben nodded shallowly. Billy smiled in a very satisfied manner as his fingers shifted and the zipper slid down. He eased his fingers inside the fly, and his eyes widened.
        "Holy. . . you some kind of masochist, Ben? I mean, Jesus. Starch?"
        Ben looked at him, puzzled. "Excuse me?"
        Billy shook his head, laughing. "God. I should know better. Never mind. Just, next time you do laundry, forget the starch. You'll be a lot happier, believe me. At least part of you will be." He grinned and winked. "Now, I'm a real soft-hearted guy, and I can't stand to see a wild thing all caged up like that, so I think we need to set you free, Benton Fraser. Unfortunately since I'm walking wounded here, guess you're going to have to do the honors." He tugged on Ben's belt-loops, pulling his jeans down an inch or so. "Off."
        Ben hesitated. He wanted this, he did, desperately. But it was so . . . intimate. So frightening. To make himself vulnerable like this, after what had happened the last time he'd touched another human being in desire. But Billy wasn't like Victoria. . . he was, perhaps, not entirely ethical, but neither was he a criminal. And, he was hurting, and so was Ben.
        "Please?" Billy asked, his voice warm, and urgent.
        Propelled by that single word, Ben's hands went to his hips, finding the heavy denim, pushing it down a little more, hampered by his position. He rolled over, hung his feet over the edge of the bed and sat up, then stood, pulling and tugging at the fabric until the garment slid down to his knees, thinking, oddly, of Billy's comment earlier that evening about needing to buy looser jeans. He bent to push them the rest of the way down, and Billy moaned.
        "Jesus, Ben. If I didn't know better I'd think you were trying to kill me! But as long as you're up, you need to get a couple of things before you come back, okay?"
        Fraser finished removing his jeans and absently folded them as he turned. "What things?"
        Billy put his arms negligently behind his head. "My guitar case, for one. And I bet there's one of those little bottles of hand lotion in the bathroom. Bring that, too."
        Ben nodded, put his jeans on the bureau, then went and retrieved the requested items, thinking they were a trifle odd under the circumstances, but trusting that Billy knew what he was doing, since he had a great deal more experience at this sort of thing than Ben did. When he returned, Billy took the lotion from him and set it on the little table built onto the wall beside the bed, then he opened the guitar case, flipped open the pick-safe, and withdrew a small packet, which he placed next to the lotion on the table, then closed the case and handed it back to Ben, who placed it next to the bed.
        As Ben turned back from doing that, he saw what Billy had just taken from the case, and suddenly both requests made a great deal more sense. He felt himself flushing, both with embarrassment, and a sense of erotic anticipation so startlingly powerful it made him shiver. Billy reached out, wrapped his long fingers around Ben's hand and pulled gently.
        "Come on, come back. You won't be cold for long."
        Ben allowed himself to be drawn back, those words seeming strangely significant. He'd been cold for so long, but now he was thawing. Was that good, or bad? Did he even care? Not right now. Right now, he just wanted to feel again. He wanted to not be alone, just for once, to feel the warmth and passion of another human being. He stretched out next to Billy and was about to reach out, to begin his explorations anew, when suddenly he was enveloped in surprisingly muscular arms, and pulled in fully against that wiry body, Billy's mouth on his, strong and hot, tongue licking at his own, so hot, so good. He found himself on his back, with Billy over him, that angel mouth moving down his throat, little bites, nips, licks, a slick trail of tongue across his collarbone, then down to a nipple, sucking softly, nibbling. Ben arched into that touch with a groan of pure need, heat exploding through his body, every sensation seeming to end up, somehow, in his groin.
        Feel. Yes. Feel. Shuddering with the intensity of it, Ben slid his hands down the sleek, narrow back, hands going beneath the loose waist of borrowed sweatpants, finding nothing else to hamper his touch, just hot, bare flesh. He cupped the shallow curves of buttocks in his hands, pulling Billy down, bringing his hardness firmly against his own erection, blazingly aware how little separated them. His boxer shorts felt rough and constricting, and as if reading his mind Billy lifted away, and those clever hands were slipping under the waistband, and carefully peeling them down.
        "Lift." The word was breathed with husky impatience.
        Ben lifted. His shorts were removed, discarded. Billy started kissing his way down Ben's body once more. Beautiful, wonderful, talented mouth. Driving him out of his mind, dragging little gasps and moans from reluctant lips, making him arch and twist. Agile tongue, lips like silk, teeth a shocking hardness that made him cry out when they tugged gently on erect nipple, or scraped against the protrusion of a hipbone. He tensed, fingers winding into the bedspread, as Billy's mouth skimmed across his belly, his tongue dipped into his navel, then traced a line down, down. . . he shivered with frustration as it moved sideways, along the line of demarcation between skin and pubic hair.
        "Please," he choked out, almost a sob.
        The word hadn't even fully left his mouth when he felt fingers curl around him, firm, warm, and wonderful. Then even better, mouth on thigh, teeth gentle against the inner surface. He bucked, whimpering, as the fingers began to stroke. He lifted his head and looked down just in time to see that blond head descending, lips parted, eyes closed in what looked like rapt concentration, and then he was seeing and feeling in unison as wet heat enclosed him. His fingers clenched into full-fledged fists, his body arching up off the mattress. Billy put an arm across his hips to hold him down, and began to stroke and suck at the same time. Ben shook, gasping, needing. Tongue slid gently around him, flickering against the sensitive spot just below the head, then dipping into the hollow at the tip before swirling back down where it had been a moment earlier.
        Billy paused for a moment, lifting his head, and leaned across him, fingers still stroking, then he was back down, almost before it registered that he'd been gone. A moment later Billy's hand slid lower, urging his thighs apart, and there were fingers slipping between his thighs, higher, cool, slippery fingers, and one was circling and then sliding inside him, gentle, and shockingly intimate. He heard himself make a raw, and overtly sexual sound that shocked him as much as that touch. . . inside him. Then that long finger was pressing deeper, and found something and oh, God, he'd never had any idea anything could feel that good! Just as Billy's mouth slipped off his aching flesh again, his last thread of control snapped and pleasure tore through him, lightning, thunder, delight.
        Thunder gradually resumed its normal beat, and Ben realized it was just his heart. Lightning was just the starburst of colors against tight-closed eyelids. Delight was definite, and sweet. Sensations began to coalesce, Billy's head, heavy against his thigh, fingers playing idly in the pool of wetness on his belly. His own hands tangled in the covers. Sweat cooling all over him. Mouth dry from gasping breaths. Streaks of moisture, drying itchily down his temples.
        A delicious lethargy lulled him toward sleep, until it dawned on him that he was the only one who'd gained release. With that he was reaching down with a clumsy hand to stroke what he could reach of Billy, which was one small ear, and his soft-crisp hair. Billy made a little mmming sound, which vibrated strangely against his thigh and woke surprising little echoes of arousal.
        "Hey," he said, conversationally. "You doing . . . okay?"
        Ben nodded, then realized Billy probably couldn't see him, and attempted to speak. "Yes. Oh, yes. That was . . . it was . . . " For almost the first time in his life, words failed him. There simply wasn't one. Not in any language he knew. Wait. Perhaps there was. "Perfect."
        Billy chuckled. "Ben, you need to get out more."
        Ben thought about that, and sighed. "You're probably correct."
        "Thought so."
        He felt the bed shift a little, and opened his eyes to see Billy sitting up, no, standing up, and walking, or rather, limping toward the door. He looked almost comical with sweatpants sagging down around his hips, and rucked up above the elastic bandage on his left knee.
        "If you need something, let me get it, you should spare your knee," Fraser said, pushing up onto his elbows.
        Billy looked over his shoulder and grinned. "I don't think this is something you can do for me. Kind of have to do it myself, if you know what I mean," he said, nodding toward the bathroom.
        "Ah, of course," Fraser settled back, feeling more relaxed than he had in . . . well, since he could remember. He heard water running, then a moment later heard Billy's voice.
        "Heads up!"
        He looked up, saw Billy grin from the bathroom door, lift an arm, then a white object came flying toward him. He managed to get a hand up fast enough to catch the warm, wet item before it hit him in the face, and discovered it was a washcloth. He smiled, and used it. He thought briefly about getting up and taking it back to the bathroom, then in a fit of deliberate and uncharacteristic laziness, he just dropped it on the wood-grained Formica of the night table. He put his arms under his head and closed his eyes for a moment.

* * *

        Ben woke to find Billy curled up against him, head on his shoulder. The light next to the bed was off now, though the bathroom light provided indirect illumination. He felt heat rise in his face as he realized he must have fallen asleep before Billy returned to bed. How incredibly discourteous! Worse, he must have managed to sleep through Billy taking a shower as well, because now instead of cigarettes he smelled of shampoo and soap, and his hair was still damp. That gave him a slight feeling of reprieve, because it meant Billy hadn't been out of the shower all that long. He shifted a little, trying to see the clock-radio on the night table, though he hadn't been paying attention before that so looking at the clock really wouldn't help.
        "Relax, Ben, it's only been about half an hour."
        Billy definitely sounded amused. How had he known what Ben was doing?
        "I'm so sor . . .," Ben began, utterly chagrined, only to have Billy reach up and put a hand over his mouth, cutting him off mid-word.
         "Stuff it. God only knows how many times I've done it, and for a fuck of a lot longer than half an hour, so settle down, okay?"
        Ben nodded, and Billy lifted his hand off his mouth. Ben caught it, and brought it back down, placing a kiss in his palm, then licking the same spot. Billy shivered and turned toward him, hips moving, tight against his thigh, and Ben realized that the other man had shed the remainder of his clothing and was naked now, naked, and partly aroused. Steadily becoming more aroused, as Ben's tongue laved his palm, his wrist, and up his forearm. He paused to suck at the tender hollow at the elbow, not hard enough to raise a bruise, but enough to cause Billy's breath to catch, and for him to press harder into Ben's thigh.
        There was something oddly reassuring about being able to feel that response, to know it was honest, and unfeigned. For years now he had wondered if Victoria's apparent pleasure had been just that, only apparent, not actual. That she could have been planning all she had, and still have gained any pleasure in his bed was beyond comprehension to him.
        "Mmm, don't stop," Billy said huskily.
        Ben realized he had, and started again, moving steadily upward. The taste of ashes was gone from Billy's skin, he simply tasted clean, and wonderful. Taking the other man's hand in his, Ben stretched both their arms above their heads, and licked in the crease where arm molded to body. Billy shuddered, sighed, made a little pleasure-sound in his throat. Turning a little, Ben aligned their bodies, face-to-face, moving instinctively to bring their hips together. He was becoming aroused again, himself, by the taste of desire, the subtle scent of arousal, the feel of flesh against his own. So complex, so simple.
        He slid his free hand down that spare body, reading it with his fingers, eyes closed, feeling each tensing that signaled sensitivity, hearing each caught breath, each sigh, finally coming to rest on one tense thigh. He smiled, knowing that tension, let his fingers trail across, hover briefly, then gently surround. A soft moan broke from his lover's parted lips as he pushed into his hand, flesh hard, and heated, and silky. Part of him startled at that thought, then he wondered why. Yes. Lover. However briefly.
        Ben wrapped the word around him, it was as sensual as velvet against his need. Just for tonight he could be that, for this man who'd never had one before, and maybe for himself, as well. A chance to be the lover he wanted to be with someone else, and that was all right, for now, because there were no expectations between them. Just desire, and loneliness, and a little caring. Why it should be so easy with a stranger and so terribly hard with a friend was a mystery to him, but it was. He had to accept it. He leaned in and brushed his lips across the hard, angular curve of one cheekbone, followed it down to those parted lips, dry from panting, and moistened them with his tongue.
        Billy arched into his hand again, bucking a little. Soft slide of skin on skin, so well-known, but so uncommon. He sealed their lips together, and began to stroke, steady, firm. This he knew. No mystery here. Brush of thumb across slick, hot skin. A shudder and groan. He set a slow, maddening pace, knowing it would make it better in the end. He skimmed his other hand down Billy's back, over the scant arc of buttock, down to thigh, curving beneath it to lift it over his own. Billy reacted eagerly, shifting his knee higher, hooking his calf behind Ben's hip, giving him the access he wanted.
        He eased his fingers into that gap, gently caressing the soft, loose folds surrounding testes, hearing breath sucked in desperately through a nose, since mouth was closed by his own tongue. Remembering that stunning pleasure Billy had evoked within him, he searched, found. Wait. Not like this. Lifting his head he looked around, saw the lotion, still uncapped, on the nightstand. He reached for it, spilled some onto his fingers and reached down again, finding again, stroking gently around, over, hearing the soft sounds of pleasure, the gasping breaths. Now, now, in.
        One of Billy's hands clenched on his shoulder, painfully hard, his whole body tense. And Ben remembered. He froze, unsure, angry with himself for forgetting. How could he have forgotten? How could he be so insensitive? Slowly, gently, he started to ease his hand back. Billy let go of his shoulder and slapped his hand tightly around Ben's wrist, halting him.
        "No," he breathed. "Don't."
        "But I . . ."
        "I want it. I want you."
        Want him. Surely he didn't mean. . . Ben looked into his eyes. Swallowed hard. Oh yes. He did. Those eyes blazed like a summer sky, cloudless, and hot. The mixture of emotions that flashed through him then were bewildering. Excitement, panic, hope, dread and anticipation warred for dominance, none won out. He drew a shuddering breath.
        "You . . . you're sure?"
        "Yeah. I'm sure." Billy moved his hips in a little undulation, eyes fluttering closed, lower lip caught in his teeth. He made a soft sound, almost a grunt, and shivered, then his eyes flashed open again, pinning Ben like a knife. "Real sure. I want to know that, this way, with you. Not angry. Not mean. Not stoned or drunk. Like this. Just . . . this."
        Oh, so much trust. Could he bear it? He felt like weeping. Why should this man trust him so? What was it about him that made people trust him, when it was so hard to trust himself? He tried to live up to that trust, but sometimes it was hard, so hard. Failure lurked at every turn. Here too. He didn't know if he could do this. He'd failed so badly before.
        "Ben? Hey, you okay?"
        He shook his head, eyes closed. "I'm afraid."
        He sensed the surprise in the body he held so intimately, then lips feathered across his lightly, and withdrew.
        "Yeah, me too," Billy said huskily. "But not enough to make me not want you. God Ben, we can do this. We can, you can. Come on, Ben, help me, I need this!"
        The other man was practically begging. No, he was begging, flat out. There was salt on the lips that brushed his again and again.
        "Please," Billy whispered. His hips moved rhythmically, sliding himself along Ben's finger, shuddering. "More. Ben, give me more. All the way. I need to know what it's like, when it's right."
        Billy let go of Ben's wrist and moved his newly-freed hand to Ben's cock, those amazingly long fingers cradling his erection, stroking, so good, so good. The actions, the words, the heat, all combined to overwhelm him. Ben gave up, resistance abandoned along with sanity, and he thrust into the hand on his cock, and slipped another finger into that tight channel. Billy moaned, bucking against him.
        "Oh God, yes. Now, Ben. Please?"
        Ben nodded. "Now. Yes."
        With a sound like a sob, Billy twisted free of Ben's fingers, then reached over and snagged one of the small packets off the nightstand "This is for you more than me, I mean, you're so clean you almost squeak, but you don't know where the hell I've been, so . . ." he shrugged, and carefully tore open the packet with his teeth, removing the contents. He licked his palm, slid that wetness over Ben's erection, combining it with the pre-ejaculate already wetting him then centered the condom unerringly and used his hand to stroke it down into place, each stroke a caress as well. Ben shivered.
        "How?" Ben managed to grate out, jaw clenched.
        "Easiest from behind," a quick flash of teeth. "Nothing in the way like that."
        That made sense, and even as he thought that, Billy was moving, rolling over, braced on hands and knees, waiting. Fear started to build again, and then Billy looked back over his shoulder, shaking his head.
        "If you would just fucking stop thinking, this would be a lot easier, Ben. So don't think. Just feel. Feel me around you. Feel me hot. Feel me com . . ."
        Ben was on his knees then, between Billy's thighs, fingers sliding down to part and stroke still-slick flesh, easing one inside again, then another, to the sound of a moan, and the buck of hips against his touch. He stroked deep, hearing the soft sounds of need that came from both of them. He sensed no tension other than need, no pain, no fear. Feel. Just feel. Feel him, around you. Hot. Yes.
        He eased his fingers out, shifted forward, placing himself against the entrance that seemed too small for this to possibly work, yet with just a little pressure, he began to slip inside. The thin film of latex made it easier, both because it was slicker than skin, and because it insulated him a little from the sensations threatening to overwhelm his control. He moved forward hesitantly, until Billy impatiently pushed back against him, firmly, and he slid in a good third of the way. Two gasps, in unison, one harsher.
        "Oh god!" Billy's body arched, head up, and back, lip caught between teeth, ecstatic pain on his face like some suffering saint. "Wait! Don't move, just there, wait!" He sucked in air, let it out in a shuddering sigh, body taut, shaking. Somehow Ben obeyed, held still, fighting the nearly overwhelming need to move, to forge deeper; waiting, as commanded. After a moment the tension in the body beneath his eased. "Yes, there," Billy whispered. "Now. More."
        More. So much more. He gave it, as gently as he could manage, every muscle trembling, and Billy took him, far past any pleasure he could have dreamed for this. Starting slowly, starting softly, but building, harder, too intense to resist the drive toward divine madness. Billy moved with him, a sleek, sweating creature of desire, burning, and beautiful. Harsh breath-sounds, a soft whimper. Ben froze, panting, listening for that sound again. Pain. Why? A moment of frantic wondering before he sensed the quiver in one thigh against his own, left thigh, the attempt to shift weight off that side. Yes, that. Only that. Relief.
        "Knee?" he managed to whisper.
        Billy nodded. Ben slid an arm around his waist and carefully maneuvered them down onto their right sides, spooned together. Billy sighed, and settled back closer with an explosive little sound of pleasure, leaning his head back, rubbing his soft, damp hair against Fraser's shoulder.
        "Yeah, so good," he sighed in that smoky, inflammatory voice.
        It was. Impossibly bold, Fraser slid his hand down the hard arch of chest, past the narrow waist, down to hip, then inward, fingers folding around the hard length couched in dark blonde silk. Billy moaned and bucked in his hand, then back against his cock. Again. Again. Oh, god. Heat spilled over his fingers, tremors, both internal and external shook the body against his, around his. Too much, that, too much. He shuddered, and then the pleasure was rising through him again, so deep, so sweet. He buried his face against Billy's neck and let the bliss overwhelm him.

* * *

        Minutes, or maybe hours later, Billy sighed, and squirmed a little, just enough to hint his need. Ben understood, somehow, and reached down to anchor the condom in place as he slipped free. He eased away, and Billy protested that, sounding sleepy, reaching a hand out. Ben leaned forward to kiss the back of his neck.
        "Shhh, I'll be right back," he said reassuringly, as he drew back and got up.
        As he headed for the bathroom to dispose of things, and to duplicate Billy's practicality with the washcloth, he thought about what he'd just done. And felt no guilt. None. Stunning. Somehow he had expected that once he'd given in, once he'd done this, indulged himself like this, he would feel guilty. He didn't. It had been wonderful. Freeing. Nothing like after . . . her. With a sense of wonder, Ben realized that now he could replace his sad, worn memories of a woman who'd betrayed him. Realized, too, that loving this stranger felt more right than that had.
        If only he'd known. Sometimes it was possible to be too naive. It was strangely amusing, at this late date, to realize what he'd felt for Victoria had probably been just the desperate need and projections of a sexually repressed and socially immature male. He looked in the mirror as he ran the water until it was hot, saw himself. Naked, stubbled, mussed, beard-burned, swollen-lipped. A human being. Thoroughly human. A smile curved his mouth as he realized not a soul he knew would recognize him at this moment. He barely recognized himself.
        He washed up, then retrieved a washcloth from the stack above the toilet, wet it down and headed back out to the bedroom. Billy was sprawled on his back, one hand tucked beneath his head, one knee cocked out to the side, taking up most of the room on the bed. His eyes were closed, his breathing slow, and even, dozing, probably. Ben smiled and sat down next to him, started to lean over to clean him up with the washcloth, then stopped, thoughtfully. Something primitive stirred in him, some strange need to know this, as well. He bent, and tasted.
        "Hey! No! Stop that!" Billy said, instantly alert, reaching down to push Ben away.
        "No?" Ben said, disappointed, the bitter-salt flavor lingering on his tongue, complex and fascinating.
        "Yeah, 'no.' That, uh, kind of defeats the purpose of having safe sex."
        Ben processed that. "Oh. Yes. Right you are."
        "I know," Billy said, looking smug.
        "However, you did say you were not . . . " Ben began, constitutionally unable to let it rest there.
        "I'm not, but it's the principle of the thing. Don't want to teach you bad habits." Billy winked broadly.
        Ben had to chuckle at that, and he used the washcloth instead of his tongue to finish what he'd started. Billy sighed, and stretched, then winced as he flexed his injured knee. Ben noticed that Billy had rewrapped the elastic bandage incorrectly after his shower, and he put the damp washrag on the nightstand with the other one, and reached to undo the metal clip that held the bandage in place so he could unwind it.
        "Ben, you're not my mother," Billy said in affectionate exasperation.
        Ben looked up at him, amused. "Probably just as well, since if that were the case then what we just did would have been illegal in even more places than it already is."
        Billy guffawed. "True. Hey, never thought about that. So, does this mean you have to turn in your badge or whatever now that I've lured you off the straight and narrow?"
        "I don't believe so."
        "Good. Wouldn't want to be responsible for that, you know."
        "But you don't mind being responsible for luring me in the first place?"
        Billy grinned. "Hell no. I debauched a fucking Mountie. That's got to earn me some serious points somewhere. Now would you stop messing around with my knee and get back in bed?"
        Ben glanced at the clock, was shocked to see it was nearly two. Only three and a half hours until the time he normally rose for the day. He hesitated.
        "Have to go?"
        The words were carefully neutral. Ben's gaze shifted instantly to Billy's face. His eyes were closed, his face as dispassionate as his voice. Perhaps too much so? Or was he just projecting again, projecting how he would feel if the situation were reversed?
        "No. Not yet," he said, quietly.
        A faint hint of dimples appeared around Billy's mouth. "You won't hurt my feelings if you do. I know you have a life. If you have to go, you have to go."
        "I don't have to go, I was just a little surprised by how late, or rather, how early, it is."
        Billy opened his eyes and looked over at the clock. His eyebrows lifted, creating several parallel rows of furrows across his brow. "Yeah. Jesus. That was not exactly a five-minute fuck, was it?" He grinned. "You sure you never did this before?"
        Ben felt a flush moving up his face and looked away.
        "Never mind, the answer's written all over your face," Billy said drily. "You done with that?" He nodded toward his knee.
        "Good, then come on." He shifted over to make room. "Enough?"
        Ben eyed the space he'd made next to him, and nodded. "Enough, but wouldn't you like to be under the covers instead of on top of them?"
        Billy looked at the bed, and grinned. "Oh, yeah. Forgot about that." He rolled out of bed and together they turned down the covers. Billy slid back in readily, Ben sat for a moment at the edge of the bed, feeling odd. Billy eyed him speculatively.
        "Not used to sleeping with anyone else, are you? Male or female?"
        Ben shook his head. "No."
        "God, what a fucking waste. Is everyone you know blind and stupid?"
        "No, it isn't them, it's me. I'm just not very good with people."
        "Yeah? So what am I? A space alien?"
        Ben laughed involuntarily. "No, though compared to what I know, you might as well be."
        Billy thought about that for a moment and then chuckled. "Okay, yeah, I get that. Now will you lay down, damn it? I mean, for God's sake the fucking part's over. Now it's just the after part." He stopped suddenly, looking thoughtful, then his gaze moved back to Ben's face. "Or is that the problem?"
        Hoping to deflect the question, Ben lay down and busied himself for a moment getting as comfortable as he could, which wasn't very. Billy turned onto his side, propped his head on one hand, and regarded him steadily until Ben turned and looked at him.
        "What?" he asked a little irritably.
        "It is, isn't it? It's not the sex that's the problem. It's the rest of it."
        Ben sighed. "There's no problem. I'm simply more used to being solitary."
        Why. Such a deceptively simple question. "I'm not an easy person to get along with," he confessed after a moment.
        "Then they're not even trying." Billy said flatly. "You know what I think? I think they're jealous of you, so they're mean to you to make themselves feel better. Assholes."
        Ben couldn't let Billy blame anyone else, not when he knew where the problem lay. "No, really. I understand that I'm not easy to be around. I think I annoy people. I tend to set my standards somewhat high. That's not easy to live with."
        "Ben, you don't set other people's standards. You only set your own. It's just seeing you meet them that makes people weird. Makes them aware they could do better. Look, I know what I'm talking about. I spent years being jealous of guys like you."
        Ben frowned. "Why?"
        Billy made a little sound of disbelief. "Why? Fuck, are you blind too? Have you ever looked at yourself? Have you ever taken a step back and really looked. I mean, you look-- well, the way you look, and you're smart, and good . . ." He shook his head. "I can't believe you don't get it. You're what we all want to be, Ben, but aren't."
        "You don't want to be me," Ben said bleakly. "It hurts."
        Billy reached out and pulled him into his arms. "I know. Hurts to be most of us. That's what being human is. I think if it doesn't hurt sometimes, it means you stopped feeling, and if you stop feeling, you're dead. But it doesn't hurt all the time. Sometimes it's good. Like when you pick up your guitar and you play, and you hit every fucking note perfect and it's like it's coming out of your soul, not a piece of wood. That hurts a little too, but it's a good hurt. Or-- and I'll kill you if you tell anyone I said this-- or you're on a back road late at night and you pull over and get out to piss and look up and notice the fucking sky. And you just stand there with your dick out like a moron, just looking at the sky because it's so damned big, and so damned beautiful. That's good. Your turn. Tell me something good."
        Ben thought for a moment, pulled out a memory, one he cherished often here in the city. "A snowfield under the full moon, like a blanket of diamonds, the air so cold it makes your teeth hurt."
        "Perfect. Good. Another one."
        Another image popped into his head. "Opening a car door into Alderman Orsini's groin."
        Billy chuckled. "I'll have to take your word for that one, but it sounds like fun. Another one?"
        Face against Billy's shoulder, Ben inhaled slowly, smelling the faint tang of sweat, his own, and Billy's. Strangely intimate. "Being held. Like this."
        Billy's hand stroked along his back, and he sighed. "Yeah. Definitely. One more?"
        "A sailing ship flying over the lake, all her sales unfurled like wings."
        "You got some interesting 'goods' there, Ben. But see? You just have to keep remembering them. Bet you have lots more. That's what I do, when it hurts too much. Find something good to remember instead of getting stuck in the bad ones. And don't always blame yourself for everything, either. I know how that is. It's always easy to figure you're the one with the problem, but you know, sometimes you're not. When I'm clear, I can see that, about . . . Joe, and me. He was the one with the problems. But for a long time I thought it had to be my fault. Hard not to slip into that again, like earlier. Thanks, for not letting me."
        Ben nodded. "It is hard, not to feel that. Especially when things go so wrong . . ." he sighed, thinking of Victoria again. Twenty-twenty hindsight was such a useless thing.
        "Okay. Tell me. What did go wrong? I mean, I can tell it was something to do with relationships, just like me. But you keep getting me to talk and then clamming up yourself. You're real good at that. Now it's your turn."
        "It's nothing."
        "Bullshit. Nothing doesn't fuck a person up like this. Tell me."
        Ben closed his eyes. He swallowed. And then he spoke. He let it out. All of it. Victoria. Jolly. Dief. Ray Vecchio. The diamonds. Everything. And through it all, Billy held him, those long hands always in touch, occasionally stroking his back, fanning over his shoulder, once reaching out to hand him a tissue from the motel-supplied box in the night-stand drawer. And he listened. Encouraged. Let him talk it all out, all the way. Ben hadn't done that since it had happened. Not with anyone. He had felt too guilty to talk to Ray Vecchio about it, and was too fearful to talk to Ray Kowalski about it, afraid he would be disgusted by it. Inspector Thatcher wasn't interested, Lieutenant Welsh too busy, Francesca. . . well, he didn't want to hurt her feelings. His father was a lost cause. But Billy just listened.
        After he finished, Billy was silent for a moment, the he whistled softly. "Holy shit, Ben. Guess that'll teach you to fuck chicks, won't it?"
        And that was just so perfectly right, that Ben started to laugh. He laughed until the tears started, and then he cried until he was cried out. Finally, exhausted, he lay with his face against that smooth golden shoulder, feeling the dense, narrow bones close beneath the surface, and noticed that Billy's hand had come to rest over the scar on his back. The scar where Ray Vecchio had shot him to keep him away from Victoria. Of course, he hadn't done that, not really. It had been an accident. But the end result had been the same. Thank God. It was the first time he'd thought of that outcome without a certain wistfulness, and speculation what it would have been like to go with her. Now he was pretty sure the sex would have palled within a week or two and he'd have thrown everything away for nothing. And he would never have met Ray Kowalski.
        Ben wondered for a moment if he should feel badly for thinking of Ray right now, as he lay in bed with another man, but he decided he didn't. There was no deceit here. No pretense. He knew he loved Ray, and Billy knew it too. It just was a fact. Like the facts that below a certain temperature water turned to ice, and above a certain temperature it turned to steam. He felt as if he'd been both, tonight. Billy's fingers traced the scar, then dropped to lie still against his skin.
        "Done?" he asked.
        Ben nodded. "Yes, thank you."
        Billy snorted. "Thank you? Can it with the polite shit, Mountie. Don't think fuck-buddies need that. Can't really see anyone saying 'would you please suck my cock, thank you kindly,' not even you." He chuckled. "Jesus. It's a good thing we're in Chicago, not LA or we'd be forming a twelve-step group for guys with totally screwed-up ex-lovers, though at least Joe never tried to ruin my life deliberately. What time do you have to be at work?"
        A little disconcerted by the abrupt change of topic, Ben spoke automatically. "I usually get up at five thirty so I can take Diefenbaker out for a run first."
        "Five thirty? In the morning? Is there such an hour?" Billy asked, grinning. "Well, no way are you getting up at five thirty, that's less than three hours from now. What time do you really have to be at work?"
        "The consulate opens at nine. I should be there by eight-thirty."
        "Okay, that's better. Tell you what, I could come over with you and take the wolf out for you so you can sleep a little later. I mean, if you think that's okay."
        The offer was made hesitantly, as if he expected to be refused. Ben thought about it. He'd walked Diefenbaker shortly before Billy's arrival, he would probably be fine waiting a little later than normal. Also, he'd had clearly liked the man, so he probably wouldn't object. He would have to go on a lead, as Billy didn't know the city and if Dief went exploring they could get lost. Still, just to the park and back shouldn't be difficult. And it was after two, and he really needed to get some rest. Slowly, he nodded. "That would be kind of you."
        A smile lit Billy's face. "Greatness! I mean, I may not be good for much but I can walk a dog. Or, I mean a wolf. At least I think I can. . . uh, he doesn't eat cats or anything, does he?"
        Ben smiled back, unable to resist the brilliance of Billy's smile. "No, unfortunately the only thing Diefenbaker is likely to try to hunt down is a bakery or a hot-dog vendor."
        Billy chuckled. "A wolf after my own heart. Okay, it's settled, then." He picked up the phone next to the bed, and as Ben watched, wondering who he could possibly be calling at this hour, he dialed, and waited. A moment later he was speaking again. "Yeah, this is room four-twelve. I need a wake-up call for seven-thirty am. It's important. Don't forget it, put a big star by it or something. What's your name? Ernie? Look, Ernie, I'll see you get a ten if I get that call. And do you guys have coffee in the . . . yeah, good. That's good. Thanks." He hung up again, looked at Ben and lifted his eyebrows. "What?"
        Billy narrowed his eyes. "I've about had it with that word. If you say it again I'll have to make you eat it. What?"
        "It really was no . . ." Ben stopped suddenly, seeing the gleam in Billy's eyes, and revised his sentence. "I just wouldn't have thought to do that. I was trying to determine the best way to make certain I awoke in time."
        Billy lay back, one corner of his mouth lifting in a wry smile. "You live in hotel rooms long enough, you get to know all the tricks. Now, it's past bedtime for Mounties. And even for guitarists. Come on." He turned over, tucking his pillow beneath his head, and reached back to find Ben's hand with his own and pull it across his chest, which brought Ben up against his back. Billy sighed, a little smile curving his mouth. "Night."
        "Good night," Ben replied, feeling a little awkward, a little unsure, but the relaxation in Billy's slim frame was contagious, and his eyelids began to droop within moments. His last thought as he dropped off to sleep was that it was strangely pleasant to share a bed like this.

* * *

        If Turnbull thought it odd that Fraser arrived at work that morning in a taxi with a man who bore a striking resemblance to Ray Kowalski, but wasn't, he kept it to himself. Thankfully the Inspector wasn't in yet. Ben managed not to blush in front of Turnbull, but he knew he couldn't have maintained his composure in front of her. He took a moment to feed Diefenbaker in the kitchen and left Billy there with him making himself a cup of tea to follow his motel coffee as he went to his office and quickly changed into his brown uniform, having showered and shaved at the hotel earlier.
        That had nearly turned into a disaster, he thought, smiling a little as he hung up his clothes. Billy had interesting ideas about showering, which had resulted in them arriving at that consulate nearly twenty minutes later than planned. But that had mostly been Ben's fault, since he was never one to leave a favor unreturned, and as Billy pointed out, he seemed to have a little problem with the concept of 'a quickie.' He really felt quite unreasonably happy, except for a lingering, background melancholia over Ray in Acapulco.
        He thought about Billy's insistence that he should speak to Ray about his feelings, and shivered a little. A terrifying thought. Was it better to stay silent than to risk losing everything? Was it logical to take a step into the unknown, to risk everything you had, on the chance of gaining more? He'd never been a gambler, the whole idea of it was foreign to him but something in him was saying it was time to take a chance. Something not logical. Something . . . instinctive. For a moment he was back on the deck of a sailing ship, admitting that logic doesn't always work. Then he was in the close, so close confines of a tiny submersible. "Trust me. For once, just trust me." Ray's voice was almost real. He leaned his head against the wall and sighed. Suddenly hearing the Inspector's voice as she greeted Turnbull, he quickly straightened and opened his door.
        "What is that and why is it there?" Thatcher was asking.
        "I believe it's a guitar case, sir," Turnbull answered. "And it belongs to Constable Fraser's guest."
        "Constable Fraser has a guest?" Thatcher asked, sounding surprised.
        Fraser stepped into the hall, saw his superior standing in the hallway frowning at Billy's guitar case where he'd left it by the reception desk. "Good morning, sir."
        Her gaze shifted to him, flickered down, then up, as it normally did. At one time he'd thought she was simply checking to be sure he was properly uniformed, but he knew better now, although she had chosen long ago not to act on it, and that was just as well. It would be a difficult situation all around.
        "Good morning, Constable Fraser. You have a guest?" Her eyes went to the guitar again.
        "I'm assisting Mr. Tallent in obtaining a replacement passport. His was stolen last night in a robbery," Fraser said, utterly factual. Leaving out a great deal. A faint heat suffused him, and he had to resist an appallingly strong urge to grin at that thought. Good lord, he'd have to be very careful. The inspector was quite observant.
        "A robbery? Of a Canadian citizen?" Thatcher sounded properly concerned. "I trust he wasn't injured!"
        "Minor injuries only. I saw to them myself. He didn't feel a hospital was needed."
        She looked around. "I'd like to speak to him."
        "Certainly, sir, this way," Fraser headed for the kitchen.
        He stopped a few feet from the door, and turned. "Sir?"
        "You put this gentleman in the kitchen?" she hissed, incredulously.
        "I asked him to," a voice said.
        Fraser looked up to see Billy at the door of the kitchen. His eyes widened, and the flush he'd felt when thinking about what they'd done surged hotter. It wasn't until he heard a slight intake of breath from Thatcher that he knew he wasn't imagining the magnetic pull he felt. The man was simply radiating sensuality. It was as if he'd turned on a switch, and the glow of it surrounded him like some strange, utterly worldly halo. Billy smiled, and the feeling intensified exponentially.
        "I wanted some tea," Billy said, holding out his mug. "Plus Dief's in here. Had to say hi."
        "You know the wolf?" Thatcher asked, sounding confused.
        "Yeah, we met last night. Speaking of meeting, I'm Billy, Billy Tallent." He held out one long-fingered hand.
        Thatcher shook it, not quite coolly. "Thatcher. Inspector, I mean, Meg Thatcher, Mr. Tallent."
        Billy smiled again, and faint color rose in the inspector's face. Ben was puzzled by her reaction, knowing how she felt about Ray, and considering that this man was so like him. But perhaps he shouldn't be. His own reaction to Billy, while colored by that resemblance, had been just as intense.
        "Call me Billy, Ms. Thatcher. Everyone does."
        "Forgive me, but do I know you?"
        Billy chuckled, an intimate sound. "Well, aside from apparently looking a lot like some friend of Ben's here, you might have heard of the band I play with. Jenifur."
        "Jenifur?" She frowned. "Weren't they on some magazine recently?"
        "Yeah, a couple, but you're probably thinking of Spin. That was pretty recent, you might've seen it."
        "I may have, yes."
        She studied Billy, a tiny frown between her eyebrows, looking as puzzled as Ben had felt a moment earlier. Suddenly her eyes widened, and she darted a glance at Fraser. He gazed back at her, waiting, hoping he looked innocent. She mouthed a word at him. 'Ray.' She'd just placed the resemblance. Not surprising it had taken her longer than it had him. Billy hadn't been . . . radiating like that the night before. Without that 'glow,' he looked far more like Ray. He nodded back at her, confirming it, and she looked flustered by his nod. He found it traitorously amusing to realize she'd been attracted to Billy, and clearly now found that disconcerting in light of his resemblance to Fraser's partner, and her usual feeling for him.
        "Well, Mr. Tallent," she said briskly, back to her usual efficient self. "I hope that your stay from here on out is more pleasant than it has been to date. I'm simply appalled that you were assaulted."
        Billy shot a glance at Ben, who felt his color rising. "Well, Ben, I mean Constable Fraser here, has taken very good . . . care of me."
        Ben thought he was going to hyperventilate at Billy's deliberate double-entendre, but it went right over the Inspector's head and she nodded.
        "Good, I'm pleased to hear that. If there's anything more we can do for you, just let us know."
        Billy nodded solemnly. "I will, thanks."
        "Well, then. Constable, carry on." With that she turned and headed for her office, leaving Ben alone with Billy, who grinned and winked.
        "Pretty good, hunh?"
        Ben swallowed, moistening his mouth enough to speak. "That was . . . amazing."
        Billy scuffed a toe against the floor and looked up through his eyelashes mischievously. "Aw, shucks, 'tweren't nuthin', really. Living in LA, you learn to shmooze with the best of 'em." He looked past Ben toward Thatcher's office and nodded. "So, do they make you all submit a portfolio to work here or something? I mean, you, her, that big guy at the door, Turnbull?" Ben nodded confirmation and Billy went on. "You all look like you came from central casting. I mean, this place is like a fucking advertisement! 'Come to Canada, where all our men are buff and gorgeous and all our women are strong and beautiful.'" He laughed. "Of course, it's all a big tease because they won't let you in unless you you're the right sort." He shot a look at Ben, and his cynical expression softened. "Sorry. I forgot. You believe in Truth, Justice and the Canadian Way. Hell, you almost make me believe in it too. So, where do you usually take the chow-hound for his walk?"
         Ben felt a little dizzy at the rapid-fire changes of subject, but he managed to keep up. "There's a park not far from here. Three blocks east, one north."
        "Okay. Just tell me which way is east and which way is north, and I'll make it."
        Fraser stared at him, trying to decide if he was joking, finally deciding not. "You can tell what direction is east by the sun."
        Billy grinned. "Yeah, maybe if you're a Mountie. The rest of us mortals need directions. Just come over to the door and point, okay? That's all I need."
        He walked into the kitchen and over to the back door of the Consulate. With a sigh Ben followed him, wondering why he was always surprised to find that so many people were ignorant of even the most basic survival skills. He reached out to open the door, and suddenly found himself pushed up against the door, a slim form pinning him there. He stared into the mischief-filled eyes, heart suddenly racing, and not just from fear of discovery. Turnbull probably wouldn't even notice, but the Inspector. . .
        "I can't believe you fell for that," Billy said softly, lips inches away from his own. "You shouldn't be allowed out without a keeper." Those lips descended, far too briefly, hot tongue flicking swiftly across his own, then Billy was stepping back, letting go of him. "Got a leash?"
        Ben blinked, utterly baffled. "Leash?" he asked weakly, remembering a certain nightclub from which he'd had to rescue a young woman. There had been people there with leashes. Of course, there had also been that person in the leather Mountie tunic, sans trousers . . . he shuddered. Not his cup of tea.
        "Yeah, leash. You know. For the wolf. What'd you think I meant?"
        A flash of teeth told him that Billy knew exactly what he thought he'd meant. "Ah. Leash. Yes, I'll just . . . I'll just go get it. From my office." Good heavens, he sounded mentally deficient. He shook himself. "I believe I neglected to tell you that when issuing instructions to Diefenbaker, you'll need to make sure he can see you speaking."
        Billy looked over at Dief, who was cleaning his bowl diligently, searching out any remaining morsels of food. "How come?"
        "He's deaf, but he reads lips well."
        Billy's eyes shifted instantly back to Ben's face. "He reads lips?"
        "Yes. In English and Inuktitut. A little French as well, but he's not as fluent in that."
        Billy stared at him. "Your wolf is deaf?"
        Ben nodded.
        "But he reads lips in three languages?"
        Ben nodded again. Billy shook his head. "Fuck. A deaf, lip-reading, multilingual wolf. That is so . . . so you, Ben. I think you broke the damned mold." His gaze dropped to Ben's mouth again, and Ben held his breath for a moment, half in fear, half in anticipation, but then Billy ran a hand through his hair and shot a rueful glace at him. "Sorry. Not used to behaving myself. I'll be good. Maybe I'm the one who needs a fucking leash. Better go get it before I forget myself again."
        Ben nodded, but found himself just standing there watching him for a moment, still amazed that he'd lain skin-to-skin with the other man, that he'd been inside him, felt the hot, slick essence of his pleasure pour over his fingers. He swallowed heavily, fighting his body's natural reaction to those thoughts as Billy limped over to the stove to pour hot water from the kettle into his mug. Limped. It struck Ben then, that he'd completely forgotten that Billy had an injured knee. He shouldn't be walking to the park and back. He frowned. How could he have forgotten that?
        "What're you staring at me like that for?" Billy asked, uncertainly.
        "Your knee."
        Billy looked down at his leg. "What about it?'
        "You can't walk Dief. You might damage your knee."
        Billy sighed. "Jesus, Ben, I thought we got that 'you're not my mom' thing straightened out already."
        Fraser shook his head. "I'm sorry, I just can't allow you to hurt yourself on my behalf. I'll simply have to ask the Inspector for a half hour's leave time to take Dief out myself."
        Billy crossed his arms over his chest and glowered. "You are not going to take fucking leave time to walk the damned wolf. I'm walking the wolf. My knee is fine."
        "You're limping." Ben pointed out.
        "Yeah, it hurts, but it's just the cut. It's hardly even swollen any more. You even said so in the shower."
        "I also told you that you should see a doctor about it, just to be sure. You don't want to take chances with joint injuries. It's not a problem for me to walk Dief, I'm sure the Inspector will allow me to take time."
        "Yeah, and what are you going to tell her when she asks why you didn't do it before work? That you couldn't because you were giving me a blow job in the shower? I don't fucking think so."
        Ben's face went hot, and he was thankful that Billy was keeping his voice down because that would have been a very embarrassing thing to have overheard. But he had a point. The inspector would ask. And he wasn't good at lying. It was a dilemma. He felt like a computer that had just locked up, frozen, unable to process.
        "You stay here," Billy ordered suddenly.
        He looked up as Billy brushed past him, limping determinedly toward Thatcher's office. Oh dear. What was he . . . Billy lifted a hand and knocked, was admitted. The door closed behind him. Fraser stared at the door, for almost the first time in his life tempted to deliberately eavesdrop. No. He wouldn't do that. Five minutes passed. Six. Eight. He was just starting to wonder if he needed to stage a rescue when the door opened, and Billy stepped out again, laughing and smiling as he shook the Inspector's hand.
        "Thanks, appreciate it, really," he said, that devastating charm radiating off him again. So strange how he could turn it on and off, like a light. "I'll make sure you get comp passes the next time we're through here."
        "That would be very enjoyable," Thatcher said, smiling back, standing too close, her hand still held in Billy's. Then she recovered herself, stepped back, slipped her hand free and looked over at Ben. "Constable? In my office."
        Ben swallowed hard. What on earth had Billy said to her? He forced himself to move forward, to step into her office as if he wasn't as nervous as the proverbial cat.
        "Yes, sir?" he prompted, steeling himself for a lecture.
        "I'm assigning you to look after Mr. Tallent until his documents and bank cards are replaced. He needs transportation and general assistance, since he's unfamiliar with the city. His knee injury is bothering him, and he'd like to see a doctor about it, and all things considered, I suspect you're more suited to such things than is Turnbull, you know how sensitive Turnbull is. And Billy, I mean, Mr. Tallent, said he likes the wolf, for some reason. So, see to it. You may take the consulate car."
        Ben was still processing that a moment later when she looked up at him again, impatiently. "Is there a problem, Constable Fraser?"
        "Ah, no sir. None at all." He took a step toward the door, looked back at her. "You're . . . ?" Thinking better of it, he shook his head as she looked a question at him. "Never mind. I'll see to it."
        Billy wasn't in the hallway, or in the kitchen. Nor was Diefenbaker. Ben sighed and went to get his hat, thinking dark thoughts about stubborn blonds. He opened the door to his office and stopped in his tracks as he found Billy at his desk, one foot propped negligently on its surface. He took a look at Ben and started to snicker.
        "Jesus, Ben, you should see your face!"
        Ben tried to school his features to a less poleaxed expression, and Billy subsided, chuckling.
        "Am I good or am I good?" he queried with an unrepentant grin. "Now. Outta the uniform. Not that you're not cute in it, in fact, you're damned cute in it, but I'm not having you mistaken for my fucking chauffeur."
        Ben strangled the impulse to chide Billy for his language. Somehow it was harder to do here in the Consulate. "Very well, I'll change if you'll allow me a moment or two of privacy."
        Billy's eyebrows lifted, creating those lines across his forehead that seemed to make his surprise even more expressive. "Privacy? Like you've got something I haven't seen before?"
        Ben shot him quelling look. "Under the circumstances, it might seem a trifle unseemly."
        Billy looked amused. "Ooooh. Unseemly. Cool. I can get into unseemly."
        "The Inspector has a tendency to forget to knock," Ben said, a little desperately. He simply couldn't do this. Not here. Not in his office. He had to keep these aspects of himself completely separate, or he would never be able to get anything done. "And she . . . well . . . she . . ." He stopped. The less said the better.
        Billy eyed him speculatively, then a big grin spread over his face. "You want me to stand guard and protect you from the big bad bosslady?"
        Ben nodded. "Please."
        "Can do," Billy swung his foot off the desk and levered himself out of the chair. "Off to sentry duty. Just don't take too long or I might have to come in and find out why."
        He brushed past Ben on his way out of the room, very close. So close that his hand just happened to sweep across Ben's crotch. Realizing that Turnbull was standing at the reception desk mere meters away, Ben prayed that he hadn't noticed and closed the door, already unbuttoning his jacket.

* * *

        Fraser found it difficult trying to keep an eye on both Billy and Diefenbaker at the same time, even though only one of them was a moving target. While he trusted Dief, there were other dogs loose in the park and one never knew about the manners of other animals. Billy was sitting, or rather slouching, on a bench across the way, and he was so still that Fraser might have thought he was dozing behind his sunglasses save that every so often his head would move slightly, betraying his interest in a group of children enjoying the playground equipment.
        He pondered that, until the person with the dogs called them and left the park, at which point he felt able to relax a little and turn more of his attention to his companion. Moving over to the bench, Ben took a seat next to him and they sat quietly, soaking in the morning sun. Ben felt his eyes drifting closed and blinked them back open, sitting up straighter to force himself to wakefulness.
        "Up past your bedtime?" Billy inquired blandly.
        Ben felt a smile curve his mouth. "A bit."
        "Well, still got the room if you need a nap."
        "It would seem terribly slothful to sleep during the day."
        Billy chuckled. "Sloth is good. It puts everything in perspective."
        "Is that what you're doing now? Getting perspective?"
        Billy's head swivelled toward him and he felt that bright, searching gaze on his face even through the dark glasses. He kept his own gaze fixed on Diefenbaker, his expression carefully neutral. After a moment Billy looked out at the wolf, too.
        "Yeah. Perspective," he said quietly.
        "You're thinking of your daughter?"
        Billy was silent for a moment, then one corner of his mouth lifted in a smile that was more of a grimace. "You ever think about working for one of those 1-900-Psychic hotlines?"
        "I'm not psychic, I simply noticed you were watching the children, and remembered what you said last night."
        "Oh. Good. 'Cause I don't think you'd like being in my head."
        "I've often thought that would be an uncomfortable experience."
        "What would? Being in my head?" Billy asked, sounding surprised.
        "Well, not yours, specifically. Rather, being, as you said, inside someone else's head. I would imagine that it could be quite distressing to learn what others really are thinking and feeling. Especially about oneself."
        "I don't think you need to worry on that score, Ben."
        Ben looked at his hands. "I suspect you're wrong about that. I know that many people find me to be difficult. Odd even."
        "Hey, if you're not odd, you're not cool. It's a compliment."
        "I rather doubt that most people would agree with your definition."
        "So? Who gives a shit? Do you like yourself?"
        Ben thought about it. It was a rather unsettling question, actually. Did he like himself?
        "It's not that hard a question, Ben." Billy prompted, sounding amused.
        "Actually, it's not a question easily answered with a simple yes, or no. There are aspects of myself which I like, and there are aspects of myself I find somewhat . . . disturbing."
        Billy chuckled. "Welcome to the human race, Ben, though I have a hard time imagining what on earth you could find disturbing about yourself."
        "I dwell on things, especially on things that cannot be changed. And I have a tendency to obsession, to self indulgence," Ben said, seriously.
        A deep groove appeared to one side of Billy's mouth. "You wouldn't know self indulgence if it bit you on the ass. Mmm, now there's a thought." The dimple grew into a grin.
        Ben blushed. Billy chuckled. Across the park a sudden shriek brought both their head's around, tensely, until they ascertained that the cry had been one of delight as a young girl barreled down a slide, not one of fear or pain. Billy shook his head.
        "Man, that'd take some getting used to."
        "Would you like to?"
        "Like to what?"
        "Get used to it."
        "To what? Biting you on the ass?" Billy asked guilelessly.
        Ben shot him a quelling glance. "You know what I meant."
        Billy shifted, slouched more, stuck his feet out in front of himself, and winced as he hyperextended his injured knee. "Ow. Fuck. Uh . . . yeah. I mean, maybe. Not sure. But I think I would. I mean, it was like getting hit in the head with a brick at first. Like, 'Shit. I have a kid.' And the first instinct is to run the hell away because it's pretty damned scary. But then, it kind of gets into your head, and after awhile it's all you can think about. Speaking of obsessing," he finished wryly.
        "A child is a big responsibility."
        "Yeah. I know. But you know what's weird, I always was kind of the responsible one, believe it or not. I mean Joe supposedly was, but half the time he'd forget so I'd end up doing whatever needed doing, especially if it involved paying bills. He was good at the up-front stuff, I was better at the details." He sighed suddenly. "Oh hell, who am I kidding? Paying bills has nothing to do with this, except that it's about all I'm good for. What the fuck do I have to offer? Money, that's about it, and hell, my life's not exactly stable, I can't even be sure of that. She has a mom, she has a guy she probably thinks is her dad. She doesn't need me, she's got a family. All I'd be doing is screwing things up."
        "You're an honest and caring man, and you have a kind and loving heart to offer," Ben said quietly. "You have yourself. Those are not small things. I think she deserves to know you. I think you deserve to know her."
        Billy stared at his feet, silent. From the line of his mouth Ben thought he might be fighting tears. He wondered for a moment if he ought to reach out, to offer comfort, or if Billy would rather have the moment to himself, to recover. It was easier that way, Ben knew. Dief bounded up suddenly, put his muzzle on Billy's thigh and whined softly. Billy gave a slightly watery-sounding chuckle and ruffled the thick white fur.
        "Hey, Dief, ready to go?"
        Dief sat down. On Billy's feet. The chuckle got less watery.
        "He's about as subtle as you are, Ben."
        "I'm extremely subtle," Ben said, slightly offended.
        "Yeah. Like playing guitar with a hammer. But I'll let it go because nobody ever said I had a kind heart before."
        "Really? It seems quite clear to me, I'm surprised no one else sees it in you."
        "Well, it's not exactly what you want to have a rep for, in my biz. People will take advantage of you." He slid his glasses down on his nose and batted his eyelashes at Ben. "So, how come you're not trying?"
        "You're attempting to change the subject," Ben said sternly.
        Billy rolled his eyes and sighed. "Yeah. So much for that. Stubborn, aren't you?"
        "So I'm told," Ben allowed with a slight smile.
        "Look. It's just not a good idea. Like I said, she already has a family."
        "You're her family too. Her father. It's important, for a child to know their father. I didn't really get to know mine until after his death."
        Billy looked at him, puzzled, and Ben realized that had sounded a little odd. "He was neither a demonstrative nor communicative man, and our relationship was somewhat. . . distant. But he left me his journals and I feel I've come to know him much better through them than I ever did when he was still alive. I just don't think it would be right for you to deprive your child of the chance to know you, or to deprive yourself of the chance to know her. I understand and admire your unwillingness to disrupt the family, but surely some accommodation could be made between you and her mother, which would allow you that opportunity."
        Billy frowned. "Am I stressing you out again?"
        Ben blinked. "Excuse me?"
        "You're getting kind of-- what did you call it, oh yeah, 'bombastic,' again."
        "Ah." Ben thought about it, and frowned. "No, it's not you. It's the situation. I'm sorry. I guess I didn't realize how strongly I felt about it. Really, it's none of my business. I spoke out of turn."
        "No, you didn't. You said what you felt. There's nothing wrong with that. And you're right. I mean, Mary was always pretty cool, maybe she'd be okay with letting me meet Billie, get to know her. I think maybe she wanted me to figure it out, after the concert. I mean, why else would Mary have brought her? It's not really the kind of place you take a kid that age for fun, though she did okay. Pipe made this goofy sort of 'Mr. Potatohead' sandwich thing, and Billie thought that was cool."
        He shifted, glanced over at the playground again, then looked back at Fraser. "That's when I found out her name. And that's what made me start wondering if she could be mine, and the way I figured it, yeah, the age was right for her to have been born after our last tour, and I did . . . " Billy shot a sheepish look at Ben and shook his head. "Anyway, before I could really think it through, Mary took off. She was talking with John and all the sudden she looks at me really weird, and she takes off, dragging the husband and the kid with her. Never did find out why. But I guess it couldn't hurt to try." He drew in a deep breath, and let it out again. "Thanks. That feels . . . better, somehow. Guess I just hadn't faced up to how much it was bothering me."
        "I often find things affect me in a similar manner."
        "Like Ray?"
        Ben felt himself tense, and tried to force himself to stop. It wasn't very successful. He nodded. "Yes, apparently. Perhaps, as you say, I haven't faced up to the reality."
        "Oh, I think you've faced up to the reality of it, only maybe it's not really reality. It's what you think reality is. What you expect it to be. But reality is rarely what we think it is." He stopped, looking thoughtful. "You know, I think there's a lyric in there somewhere. Anyway, why do you think he wouldn't be interested?"
        "He's still in love with his ex-wife."
        "Is he? I know lots of guys who act like that, but what they're really in love with is the idea of being in love."
        Ben shook his head. "You haven't seen him around her. They were together for a very long time, since they were practically children. He truly does love her."
        "But he's divorced. He can't have her. Eventually he's going to get past that. What else?"
        "He's an officer of the law."
        "So are you. Next?"
        "He's currently on holiday in Acapulco, with a woman."
        "Ahhh. Now we're getting somewhere. That bothers you?"
        "N. . . " Ben began then he sighed. "Yes."
        Billy flashed him a quick, encouraging smile. "Good, no lying here. Why? If you think things are so impossible, then why would that bother you? If you really believed that, it wouldn't bother you, because you'd know there was no chance of anything happening, so if it bothers you then somewhere in there . . ." Billy reached out to touch a fingertip to Ben's chest. "You think there's a chance, which probably means that you're getting vibes off him that he might be interested."
        "Vibes? What precisely is a 'vibe?'"
        "You know what a vibe is, you're just stalling. Admit it. You know what it means and I'm right."
        Ben stared off into the distance. This was certainly a conversation he hadn't expected to ever have. With anyone. He wondered what it was about Billy that provoked such confidences. Still, it was already begun, he could hardly back out now. He sighed. "Some of our interactions had become quite intensely personal. There seemed to be, well, I suppose I had allowed myself to think we were. . . closer, of late. That there was a 'vibe' as you put it. That's why it was such a shock when he suddenly announced he was going on this trip."
        "Mmmhmm. Tell me something. Have you ever talked sex with him? I don't mean like talking nasty, I doubt if you could do that if your life depended on it. I mean have you ever just talked about the fact that you swing both ways?"
        Ben frowned. "Swing both ways?"
        "That you're bi, or whatever you are."
        "No, of course not! I wouldn't want him to think . . ."
        "I was wondering if that might be it. I mean, I was confused because you pretty much flat out told me, right off the bat, so I thought you must be pretty open about it, but the more I listen, the more I think that was a fluke, right? Just something about me, or the timing, or the situation. You've never admitted this to a soul before, have you?"
        Ben shook his head. "No. Never."
        "So, did you ever stop to think that maybe he's doing exactly the same thing you're doing? Freaking out because he wants you, and he thinks you're straight?"
        "Well, maybe you should."
        "I don't think that's a good idea. I really don't."
        Billy sighed. "Yeah, I can see that. Well, just think about it, okay? I can see you're not the snap decision type, so let it perk for awhile."
        Ben frowned. "I suspect it will do that whether or not I want it to, now that you've put the idea in my head."
        A broad grin answered that. "Good."
        They sat in silence for a few moments, then Billy spoke again, sounding a little amused.
        "So, I'm thinking maybe you might want to go back to the motel after all, get some rest?"
        Ben straightened, snapping fully awake. "I'm fine."
        Billy snorted. "Yeah. Sure. You always fall asleep within thirty seconds of ending a conversation. Would it help if I promised I wouldn't take advantage of you? Hell, you can even leave me somewhere else and just go back by yourself, if you're really worried."
        "I assure you I have no concerns regarding your conduct," Ben said, worried that somehow he'd given Billy that idea.
        "You don't? Well shit, I must be doing something seriously wrong here. Maybe I should just kiss you . . ." He leaned toward Ben, who drew back, eyes widening in surprise and dismay. Billy sighed and rolled his eyes, throwing his hands up in disgust. "Jesus, Ben! It was a joke! Lighten up, you really need to learn to relax."
        "If I relax any more, I'm afraid I'll be asleep."
        "So, what's wrong with that? I can think of worse things to do on a sunny park bench."
        "We need to go."
        "We do? How come? We have an appointment or something you didn't tell me about?"
        "Not precisely, but we need to go to the local branch of your bank and arrange to get you a new ATM card. Also, the clinic will be open by now and it's rarely very busy this early."
        "Clinic?" Billy stared at him, concerned. "You sick?"
        "No. You told the inspector you wanted to have your knee seen to. Don't you remember?"
        "Oh that. Look, I only told her that to get you out of there. I don't need to see a doctor."
        "I'm afraid you're going to have to."
        "Because I won't lie to my superior."
        "Why not? I did."
        "Because I don't lie."
        "Well, only in the line of duty."
        "Uh hunh. Right. You know what's really scary? I believe you. Okay, fine, I'll go to the clinic so you don't have to lie, but it's dumb. I'm fine."
        "I'd feel better about it."
        "I said I'd go, didn't I? You won't even have to use the handcuffs, though come to think of it that might be fun . . ." he winked, and planted a hand against the bench to lever himself a little awkwardly to his feet. "I'm up, let's get it over with."

* * *

        "You happy now?" Billy asked, limping stiffly toward the entrance to the motel, his left leg encased from lower thigh to ankle in a velcro-wrapped brace. "I get to play my next gig looking like a total geek."
        "Well, happy is a subjective concept. . . "
        "Oh cut it out, I think you do that just to aggravate people. You know, I never knew Mounties had groupies. Or is it just you?"
        Ben frowned. "Please, they're medical professionals and won't thank you for calling them 'groupies.' It's very undignified."
        "So is salivating over a guy in public. I take it you go to the old Urgent Care a lot? I mean, they know you by name." He grinned. "'Oooh, Constable Fraser! Are you hurt? Can we help you?'" Billy pitched his voice high, and with stereotypically feminine inflections. "Jesus, I never saw so many disappointed faces in my life as when they figured out it was me that needed help, not you. I think they were looking forward to getting you into one of those backless smock-things that nurses like so much."
        Ben opened the door for Billy and waited for him to step through, delaying the moment as long as possible before speaking,. "There you are. If we receive any of your replacement credit cards or documents today, I'll bring them over for you after work."
        Billy stopped moving forward and turned so sharply he nearly lost his balance, grace negated by the brace. "After work?" he asked, frowning.
        "I really ought to be getting back to work."
        Billy crossed his arms and glowered. "Did I or did I not get your services for the entire day?"
        "Well, I realize it was just a ploy and as you are just going to go to sleep, I thought I should use that time to better adv. . ."
        "You're damned right I'm gonna sleep," Billy interrupted. "So are you. And since I know you won't if you go back to the Consulate, it's going to have to be here." He paused a moment, and a hint of uncertainty crossed his face, then he went on. "Look, if it's me, if you don't want to sleep with me that's okay, hell, I'll sit and wait in the lobby if you want, but you are going to get some rest."
        Ben surreptitiously glanced around and was relieved to see that there was no one within earshot. "It's not that," he said quietly. "I simply don't feel right about it. And besides, I have Diefenbaker with me, and I'm sure they won't allow him inside."
        "Want to make a bet?"
        "I don't gamble."
        "Oh for fuck's sake, Ben! Get the stick out of your ass! I can think of lots more fun things to do with it. Your ass, that is, not the stick. Come on, Dief."
        He turned and walked on into the lobby of the motel. Diefenbaker hesitated for a moment, then he gave a low whine and trotted after Billy. Ben, still trying to decide whether he should be offended, stood frozen in place as Billy limped up to the desk and proceeded to converse with the young man behind it. Something changed hands, then Billy was heading for the elevator, Dief at his heels. Another moment, a button was pushed, and the elevator door slid open. Billy stepped in, so did Dief. Billy looked across the lobby at him, lifted an eyebrow and sent him a lopsided smirk as the door glided closed again. For a moment longer Ben stood immobile, then his gaze swept the lobby, found the stairs, and he was moving toward that doorway with quick determination. He thought he heard a soft chuckle from the desk clerk, but ignored it, taking the stairs two at a time.
        He was waiting at the door to Billy's room as the other man and a certain willful wolf came around the corner. Billy stopped when he saw him, and a smile flashed into being, bright and hot. He didn't speak, just moved forward again, hand slipping into a pocket to retrieve the key-card, easing it into the lock, then out again as he leaned on the door, shoving it inward. Dief pushed past them, disappearing into the dimness of the room as Billy stepped inside. Ben followed, closely. Very closely.
        In a move that surprised even himself, he pushed the door closed behind them, hard, found himself pushing Billy up against the wall, a hand curving itself over the scant curve of his buttock. Billy put his hands against the wall and arched back, a seraphic smile on his face, faintly limned by a line of light from beneath the door, and another from a narrow gap in the curtains at the window.
        "Oh yeah," Billy sighed. "Knew it was in there."
        Too aroused to wonder what the other man meant, Ben put his face into the curve of Billy's shoulder and breathed in deeply. The scent went to his head like a drug. He licked the smooth skin of his neck, just below where close-trimmed blond hair roughened it. The salt-and-sweet taste of sweat and flesh reminded him of the previous night, of that single taste, of wanting more. Reminded him of that morning, water coursing over him as he knelt between wide-braced feet, his hands gripping narrow hips, so many fantasies come to truth. His hands slid around that slim form, met in front, moved downward, finding the firm bulge between tense thighs, palm stroking, shaping, until hips pushed into his touch, animal, rhythmic. A soft sound of discomfort told him he wasn't the only one whose clothing was far too confining, too rough against sensitive skin. That could be corrected.
        Finding the button, slipping it, easing the zipper down with care, somehow still cognizant of the lack of protection for the warm, eager flesh below. Ben pushed denim down his thighs, though the brace kept Billy's jeans from sliding as far down as he wanted them to. Still, it was enough to give his hands access, one cupping the thickening shaft, protecting it from the cold, hard wall; the other hand moving over those spare buttocks, sliding between, searching, finding. Billy made a soft sound, and reached up to his shirt pocket, fumbling for a moment. An odd sound that made Ben listen for a repeat, which came a moment later, followed by another sound, something small falling to the carpet. Then one of Billy's hands moved back behind himself, fingers twining with Ben's, cool and slick.
        Not questioning, understanding the need for that, he freed his hand from Billy's and resumed his caress, spreading the slickness, then pressing entry. Billy moaned, his hips bucking into Ben's other hand with each thrust. Daring, determined, he added another finger, shifted them to a different angle. A gasp. A shudder. He did that again. Again. A moan. Again. His other hand wrapped firmly around Billy's fully erect penis.
        "Oh fuck, yeah. Yeah." Billy's breathing was ragged, his voice smoky. Slippery fingers fumbled with Ben's waistband, awkward, unable to gain purchase. A soft curse. "Damn it. Ben, come on."
        Momentarily releasing Billy's erection, Ben quickly opened his own jeans, one-handed, trying to get them down far enough to make this possible. Somehow he managed it. He nudged into place, sliding against his slick palm on the way, then pressing. Their close-matched height made them a perfect fit, and Billy pushed back against, him, body starting to yield, only to pull away suddenly.
        "Damn, wait, wait."
        Another fumble, this time a different pocket, a hollow, papery sound, a crinkle. A twist of head, more crinkling, then something was being urged into his hand. Something small, circular, flexible. Oh yes. He'd forgotten. Not as practiced as Billy, Ben had to use both hands to slide the latex sheath over his own erection, then it was in place, and he was forging inward again. Distant heat and overwhelming closeness surrounded him, welcoming him. He shuddered, and thrust hard. Billy moaned again, pushing back, facilitating the penetration.
        "Oh god, oh god, that's good. So good. Come on Ben, harder, damn it!"
        Yes. That was what he wanted. Hard. Fast. He put his hands on the wall and used that leverage to give himself more power. Billy braced back against his thrusts, solid, strong, nothing delicate about him, despite his slender frame. There was music in their coming together, a brash chord of appetite, sensual refrain of gasps, moans, and the occasional grunt, the driving percussion of flesh on flesh. Ben put all his weight on one hand, moving his other hand, the still-slick one, down over bare, flat belly, down into damp, rough silk, found the velvet heat there, not quite as hard as before, but rapidly filling as Ben's hand curved around the length of flesh, pumping in a motion he knew well, though until last night he had never touched another man this way.
        Billy tried to spread his legs wider, trying not to let Ben's greater weight and powerful thrusts push him into the wall, barely managing as Ben drove hard into him, over and over.
        "Oh fuck! Oh fuck that feels so great!' Billy panted, his head dropping forward, light gleaming faintly on the back of his neck.
        Ben leaned forward to drag his mouth across it, feeling the slick of sweat on his lips, tasting it, he opened his mouth, fit his teeth over the taut line of muscle, not biting, just holding. Billy groaned and shuddered, and the silky heat spilling over Ben's fingers combined with the contractions around him and the frank eroticism of the moment to trigger Ben's release as well. He moaned, the pleasure almost painful, utterly delicious, so free, so hot. Trembling, he stilled, letting the sensations ebb slowly, feeling matching tremors in the body so intimately linked to his own.
        His heartbeat had begun to slow when Billy sighed, and lifted his head. His fingers pressed breifly against the base of Ben's cock as he held the condom in place while shifting his hips forward, pulling free with a little intake of breath that wasn't quite a gasp. A moment later he slipped the condom free and tossed it into the bathroom trash can, only feet away. Ben reached out and wrapped his arms around the other man, pulling him back against him. Billy let him, relaxing against him, and they stood so for a moment, then Billy's fingers encountered Ben's rather messy ones and he chuckled.
        "Christ, Ben, even if you do spend too much time with the wolf, you have some real natural talent there."
        Ben felt himself blushing, and was glad it was too dark in the room for that to be seen.
        "Come on, I'm tired and I want out of my clothes. Let's clean up and go to bed but you're going to have to help me with the brace."
        Ben nodded and let go, and they set about doing just that. Billy shared the bathroom without a second thought, as if it were perfectly normal, which Ben supposed it might be to some people, but it made him somewhat self-conscious. After removing his own clothes and carefully hanging them in the closet, Ben helped Billy remove the brace, and undress. As soon as he'd finished putting away Billy's clothes, he found himself dragged into bed and curled up against. The room was a neutral temperature that let them touch without getting sweaty.
        "You feel good," Billy said sleepily. "Comfortable. 'Night."
        He lifted his head and put his lips against Ben's in a surprisingly sweet, un-urgent kiss, and Ben lost himself in that for a moment, in the soft press of silky flesh, the languid swipe of tongue, the soft suckle of his lower lip. Finally Billy moved away, and put his head down on Ben's shoulder. Ben shifted a little so the heavy weight of Billy's head was more comfortably against the hollow of his shoulder, and hesitantly stroked the soft blond hair, tousled today, rather than spiked, no doubt due to the lack of styling products available in the motel bathroom. Distinctly flatter than it had been the previous night, it made Billy seem somehow younger, and more vulnerable, though he knew they were only a year apart in age. He felt Billy's breathing even out and deepen, and knew he was asleep. His own eyelids were heavy, and he knew it wouldn't be long before he slept himself, though his brain still insisted on thinking. It was sometimes a distressing habit.
        He thought about how pleasant it was to lie there in a real bed, against crisp, clean sheets, with a warm, and willing, and apparently sane partner. He closed his eyes, replaying the wantonness of his actions, a little shocked, a little aroused, despite having just reached completion. He smiled, wondering how Billy would react to that, but knowing he wouldn't wake him to find out. He let his fingers stroke idly up the long line of one arm, over the surprisingly muscular shoulder, onto the bony plane of back. It felt good, to touch, to be touched. Something he normally chose to forget.
        A part of him wanted nothing more than to stay in this place, in this moment, to indulge every long-denied appetite. Fantasies of spending hours learning this unashamedly hedonistic man surged through him. He could easily fall into that obsessive exploration of delight. At heart he was as much a sensualist as Billy, possibly more so. He knew that about himself, had learned it long ago in the arms of a woman who had betrayed him. And in the painful aftermath of that experience he had also learned how to lock that part of himself away, to hide it from the world, even from himself most of the time.
        The powers of pleasure and desire were frighteningly strong. It was the one chink in his armor, or at least the largest. This time, though, his eyes were open, not blinded with illusions. He could differentiate desire and passion from love. He liked Billy, a surprising amount really, considering how different they were, but he did not love him. That emotion was reserved for a rough-edged Chicago cop with a quick smile and uncertain eyes.
        It had struck him like a blow, the first time they had met, the moment those long arms had closed around him and to his shock he realized he wanted them to stay there. It had taken some time to admit that to himself, but he had owned up to it at last. No matter that it was a hopeless love, it was still love. It was that simple. He wondered what Ray would think, if he confessed that. If he told him, as Billy kept urging. He let himself imagine that Ray's lucent blue eyes would light, that the quick smile would blossom, that he would reach out, and let himself be held, like this. Just like this. Sleep pulled at him, drawing him down, still smiling, into dreams.
* * *

        The smell of food woke him, mouth already watering as the rich, heavy aroma of steak teased his nose. He sorted out the sweet, almost doughy scent of baked potato, the acrid essence of vinegar. He opened his eyes, looked around, disoriented, saw a shape silhouetted against the doorway, heard Billy's voice saying 'thank you' to someone. A moment later the door closed, and Billy walked back into the main room, carrying a tray with three covered dishes on it. He set them down on the desk, turned, and grinned when he saw Ben watching him.
        "Hey, Dief, look, Sleeping Beauty's finally awake."
        Diefenbaker's head lifted over the edge of the bed, and he whuffed softly, chiding Ben for sloth. Ben levered himself onto his elbows, looking around for the clock. He was shocked to see it was after six.
        "Good lord! Why didn't you wake me?" he asked, sitting up, trying to decide if his first move should be to call the inspector and apologize, or simply get dressed, head back to the Consulate and try to do it in person, if she hadn't already gone home, which she probably had.
        "You obviously needed the sleep. Bet you don't usually get much, do you? You have that overworked look around your eyes. Anyway it's cool. I called the Consulate, talked to Turnbull. You know, that boy's a little odd. Anyway, I told him the doc gave me pain pills and I wanted you to watch me in case I had a bad reaction. He said the bosslady was cool with that."
        "Turnbull said that?" Ben asked incredulously, strongly suspecting Billy was lying to him.
        "Well, actually, I think he said 'Inspector Thatcher said to tell you she understands and hopes you enjoy a complete recovery.' Or something like that."
        "Ah, well, then, that sounds more likely."
        "Here, get dressed, dinner's ready."
        Billy tossed something at him, Ben caught the soft object, found it was his sweatpants. He set about turning them right-side out as Billy took the cover off one plate and headed for the bathroom with it.
        "C'mon Dief. Dinner for you too."
        Dief shot to his feet, following instantly. Ben hastily pulled on the sweats and got into the bathroom just in time to see Dief pick up a whole steak from a plate on the floor. The wolf shot him a look that plainly said he would have a fight on his hands if he tried to take the meat away, and Ben sighed.
        "You shouldn't have done that. It's far too expensive, and too rich."
        Billy grinned. "Hey, I figured it would hurt his feelings if we got steak and he didn't. Now come on. I'm hungry too. Never got breakfast or lunch today. My metabolism doesn't like that."
         Ben imagined it probably did not. Not as thin as he was. He helped Billy move the desk over to the foot of the bed so they could sit and eat, which they did, in a companionable silence. It had been some time since he'd eaten so well, and once he'd finished the salad and started on the steak, Ben felt rather like Diefenbaker. An image of himself crouching over a plate on the floor with a steak clenched in his teeth made him chuckle. Billy raised his eyebrows, taking a long swallow from a brown bottle that smelled, oddly, of anise and sarsparilla, not yeast and hops. Root beer? A concession to his own abstention? Interesting. He wondered if Billy was always so chameleonic.
        "Well?" Billy prompted, putting the bottle down. "What's funny?"
        "I was just thinking that I understand Dief's distress at the thought of having his steak taken away from him. I don't usually eat this well."
        "Jesus, not only do they make you wear silly pants, sleep on a cot in your office, and stand outside in all weather playing statue, but they don't even pay you enough to feed yourself? Sounds like you ought to start a Mountie union or something."
        "Oh, no. My pay is more than adequate, I rarely spend all of it. I suppose I'm simply used to pizza and Chinese." It occurred to him suddenly, why he was used to those things, and he smiled a little at the realization. He usually ate pizza and Chinese because he usually ate with Ray, and those were Ray's staple meals. Billy tilted his head a little to one side, regarding him thoughtfully.
        "Your face just lit up like a candle. You were thinking of him, weren't you?"
        Ben felt guilty. He hadn't meant to be so obvious. It wasn't very considerate to be thinking of Ray when he was with Billy. "I'm sor . . ."
        "No. Don't be. You've been up front with me. I appreciate that. Don't stop now. We both know this ends here. At least, this part of it does. I like you, Ben. Weird as that probably sounds from a freak like me, but I do."
        "I like you as well, Billy, very much. And not just. . . well, you know."
        Billy grinned. "Yeah. I do. And me too. Though that 'you know' stuff was pretty damned good. But I'd like to think maybe we can be friends."
        "As would I."
        "Good. Greatness. Done deal." Billy looked at him for a moment, solemnly, then he leaned over and kissed him.
        His mouth tasted of licorice, and his lips were slightly slick, probably butter from the potato. Ben slid his mouth across that smooth, slippery surface, licked at the sweetness of his tongue, and then deepened the kiss, hands coming up to hold him still. It might end here, but it was still here and he had the rest of the night, and there was one more thing he wanted, no, needed, to know. Billy pushed him back onto the bed, mouth still moving on his own, lips and teeth, and tongue . . . God, he could kiss! That mouth was sinful. He slid his arms around the other man, pulled him closer, wantonly capturing one thigh between his own, and arching against it. He could feel Billy start to smile against his lips, and then he was breaking the kiss, finally, with a last soft suck at his tongue.
        "So, I'm kind of getting a hint here that you might be up for some more . . . 'you know,'" Billy teased, huskily.
        "You are a remarkably perceptive individual," Ben said, a little surprised at how husky his own voice sounded.
        "Mmm, that's me. Perceptive. Sensitive New Age Guy and all that."
        "That might be overstating the case."
        "Just a little," Billy chuckled. His hand lifted to trace a line down Ben's chest, stopping to circle a nipple which rose instantly. He leaned down, flicked his tongue across it, then lifted his head, though not his hand. "Got something specific in mind?" he asked casually, fingers idly stroking across his sternum. "'Cause it seems like you're a man with a mission."
        Remarkably perceptive was an understatement. Ben knew he was blushing again, as that hand moved down his torso, a finger tracing teasingly along the waistband of the sweatpants. He closed his eyes, trying to summon the courage to speak, and felt a tongue trace along the line of his jaw, up toward his ear.
        "I'd say that's a yes," Billy whispered, his tongue stealing out to tickle his ear, lips closing briefly around an earlobe, teeth nipping gently, then letting go. "What do you want? We've done what I wanted, your turn now."
        Ben nodded, relieved to not have to say it. "Yes. Yes, that's exactly it."
        A moment of quiet. Then a soft chuckle. "Oh. I get it. You sure?"
        He nodded again. "Yes."
        More quiet. A long quiet. He opened his eyes, found Billy looking into his eyes, his expression faintly troubled, a hint of cloud in his clear gaze. He let his own eyes ask the question. Billy sighed.
        "You really want to do that?" he said, uncertainly.
        Ben gazed back at him evenly. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't?"
        Faint color flowed across angular cheekbones, eyelashes dropped to shutter embarrassed eyes. "Well, I thought you might want to save that for someone really special."
        Ben reached out and put his hand behind Billy's head, pulled him gently forward until their lips met. It was a gentle kiss, accepting, warm. He drew back. "You are special."
        That faint color deepened, Billy looked away. "You know what I meant."
        "I know. I also don't believe that will ever happen. And even if it did, I would want this now. I need to know. Just like you needed to know."
        Billy sighed again, and looked back at him, wryly amused. "Sneaky bastard, aren't you? I like that in a person." He lowered his head and their lips met again, not so gentle this time.
        Ben responded in kind, so hungry, not for food, but for touch. He hardly knew himself this way, so needy. He did a better job of hiding from himself than he'd realized. That couldn't be healthy. It was definitely time to accept certain truths about himself, time to allow himself to be who he was, not the idealized picture of who he was that he'd always tried to live up to. He'd set himself an impossible standard.
        Billy lifted his mouth, and sat back, frowning a little. "Hey. Where'd you go?"
        Ben looked up into those too-observant eyes, and smiled. "Just thinking again. As you said, this works much better if I don't do that." He sat up and slid his hands beneath the soft, loose t-shirt Billy wore, pushing it up. Billy flashed a grin and lifted his arms so Ben could pull it off, and as soon as it was gone, his hands were at his waist, unbuttoning and unzipping.
        "Isn't that uncomfortable?" Ben asked as he noticed yet again that the other man wore nothing beneath the denim.
        Billy snorted. "No, Mr. Starched Boxers, it's not. At least not when I don't have somebody making me hard all the time. Besides, I'd have to give up my Rock Star membership if I stopped going commando. It's a union rule, you know." He grinned and winked, methodically ripping open the velcro strips that held the brace in place over his jeans, then removing it and dropping it unceremoniously to the floor. "There. Feel like a Borg or something in that, but I got the hang of it now. He stood up and started to push his opened jeans down, then stopped thoughtfully, looking around. A moment later he was over by the door, where there were still handprints on the wall. Ben flushed, not with embarrassment, but with arousal as he remembered that wild coupling. Billy stooped, picked something up off the floor and turned, grinning. "Here. Present for you."
        He tossed it, he seemed to like throwing things. Ben caught it and looked at the small bottle curiously, reading the label. Understanding dawned suddenly, and his face got warmer. Oh. Then he frowned, and looked up. "Where did you get this?" They'd been together all day, and he hadn't seen Billy make any purchases like this.
        Billy's grin widened as he went to the closet and fished in his shirt pocket, removing several strips of condom packets which he waved in Ben's direction. "Same place I got these, the pharmacy at the Urgent Care place. Don't worry, your virginal reputation is secure, they'll never know they weren't for me. Figured if you ever stopped being so fucking pessimistic you might find a use for them someday."
        Ben smiled. "I have a use for them now."
        Billy grinned. "True." Returning to the bedside, he dropped the condoms on the nightstand, then turned around and slid his jeans to mid-thigh. That done, he sat down and started awkwardly trying to work them the rest of the way off, his injury making the task harder.
        Ben put down his 'present' and rolled out of bed and knelt at his feet to help Billy. As he slipped the fabric free, he was reminded of the previous night, that awkward intimacy, that abortive desire. So much easier now, so much freer. A weight had lifted with the admission of this aspect of himself. He was a man, with a man's desires, a man's needs. There was nothing wrong with that. Nothing evil, or bad. It simply was. And those needs and desires were very strong right now.
        He reached out and put his hands on Billy's hips, pulling him forward a little, using his torso to wedge those surprisingly strong thighs apart. He glanced up to see a slow smile spreading over Billy's face, his eyes sleepy-lidded but hot behind deceptively innocent lashes. He tried not to think of how much like this Ray would look, under similar circumstances, but it was a difficult thing. He'd so often imagined this, with Ray, yet had never dared let himself imagine letting his gaze slide lower, from face, to chest, to . . . groin. Beautiful. Not unlike the rest of him, long, lean, taut. He reached forward, took that length in his hand, intently focused, watching the response, the swelling, the way the loose folds of foreskin drew back as he hardened more, the gleam of light on moisture at the tip. He leaned down, lips parting, and just as he had that morning, Billy put his own hand over Ben's shielding himself from Ben's lips.
        "Uh-unh, sorry. Keep it safe, Ben."
        He'd forgotten. Again. He didn't know which was more irritating, the fact that he kept getting so involved he forgot such a basic precaution, or the fact that he couldn't indulge his favored sense with Billy. Annoyed, Ben made a sound to express it.
        Billy laughed. "You sound like the wolf."
        He felt himself blushing. "I'm sorry, I should be able to remember something that important for more than thirty seconds," he confessed.
        "You're just not used to needing to. Which is, actually, kind of hard to believe, but I do. It took me a while to get into the habit, and I know it's not as fun, believe me, but I got enough to be sorry for in my life without risking that." Suddenly he grinned, a flash of brilliance. "Besides, that way you still got something saved for . . . somebody else. Not fair for me to take it all."
        The wash of heat through him as he realized what Billy meant nearly made him gasp. Ben closed his eyes against the thought of doing this with Ray, of tasting him, so intimately, nothing between them. How could Billy invoke that so casually? Didn't it bother him to know that Ben couldn't help but make that comparison? As if in answer, Billy reached down and put his hand under Ben's chin, tilting his head back, leaning down to fuse their mouths in a long, hot kiss. Wrapping his arms around that slender torso, he felt the hard length of Billy's erection against his stomach, and reached between them to caress it with a strong, steady stroke until Billy broke the kiss, gasping.
        "God, Ben. . . either stop now, or get used to disappointment."
        Ben stopped, immediately. Billy laughed softly. "Guess that tells me a thing or two. Stand up for a second, yeah, there . . ."
        He tugged at the drawstring of Ben's sweats and loosened it, then slipped them down, and Ben kicked them off. He started to pick them up, only to find his wrist imprisoned by Billy's fingers. His grip was strong, startlingly so, for such a narrow hand.
        "Leave 'em and get that sweet ass of yours into bed. I am not waiting around while you play maid."
        Ben looked into Billy's face, a little surprised by his vehemence, saw the humor sparking his gaze, along with determination, and relaxed. He gave a slightly sheepish smile. "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm not very good at spontaneity."
        "Is that so?" Billy queried, sliding back onto the still unmade bed, a slight smile lurking around the corners of his mouth.
        He patted the bed next to him, and Ben eased himself down next to him, a little nervously. He wanted this, but it was unknown territory, and he usually preferred to equip himself with map, compass, and guidebook for that sort of exploration.
        "So. You don't do spontaneous? Guess you want to know the game plan, then?"
        Ben frowned, puzzled. "The 'game plan?'"
        Billy's smile got a little wider. "Yeah. I tell you what I'm going to do, so you'll know what's going to happen already."
        Ben was suspicious. He could tell from Billy's expression that there was a catch here, something he was missing. "Well . . . I, ah . . ."
        "First I'm going to kiss you again, so come here."
        Well, that was not something he cared to miss, so he complied, letting Billy push him down against the pillows and lean down to fuse their mouths. At least he could taste this, and it was luscious, warm, and wet and hot, familiar flavors of their meal mingled with the less-familiar but equally sumptuous taste of Billy's mouth. He nibbled at the lip that moved on his own, swept his tongue across sharp, hard teeth, only to have it met with the slick slide of other tongue, then sucked softly. He was settling into that cadence, arching in an echo against the body above his own, when suddenly it was gone. He wasn't sure, but he thought he whimpered.
        "So," Billy whispered, trailing kisses up his jaw. "Next, I'm going to lick your throat . . ." He demonstrated. "Then your ear."
        Soft, wet tongue tracing the convolutions of the pinnae.
        "Then I'm going to bite your shoulder."
        Teeth closing on the solid curve of muscle there, not hard, but enough to make him gasp.
        "And taste that spot right under your arm. . ."
        His hand was caught, his arm extended above his head, lips coming down in a place that made him jump at first, and laugh, and then he wasn't laughing, he was moaning as tongue found the aforementioned spot and suckled, and licked. Even as he writhed under that anticipated, yet unexpected assault, he thought about the scent and the texture and the taste and he wanted to push Billy down, to do the same to him, to bury his face in that valley and let that scent surround him, primitive and rich, the swirling steam of pheromone-laden sweat. He struggled a little, trying to carry out his desire. Billy's weight pinned him down, though if he really fought he could overcome him. However, he didn't want to fight. A little breathlessly he waited for that sultry voice to continue, anticipating the words as much as the actions that followed. Finally it came, and the voice was a caress all its own.
        "Maybe a nipple now?" Billy bent his head over Ben's chest.
        Ben tensed, waiting, breath held; saw Billy's eyes flash up, strangely golden as they caught the light, full of fire, and amusement. Then that brief glimpse was gone, and hot mouth was closing over astonishingly sensitive skin. A moan broke free, low, and raw. Suction increased, as did the sound of his own voice, wordless and unrestrained. Ben couldn't seem to stop himself, as that tongue flicked over hardened flesh, and he imagined it somewhere else, moving over even harder flesh. Then the sweet heat and wet disappeared, and he moaned his protest over that as well. He didn't know himself. He was a stranger, stretched naked on an unknown bed, aching, trembling, yielding, waiting. Learning.
        "Now I'm going to touch you," Billy said, lifting his head a little, then lowering it again to resume that maddening suction as his hand came down on Ben's chest on the other side, skimming lightly over that nipple, then stroking downward, slowly, the calluses on his fingertips slightly rough against skin unused to human touch. Down his ribs, across his stomach, a finger circling his navel before moving on, down the faint line of dark hair that started there, down to where it widened, became a thick frame for his genitals. His fingers teased the curling thatch there, raking through it softly, never touching his penis. Ben trembled with anticipation, barely breathing. Billy lifted his head.
        "I'm going to put my hand on your cock," he said, but didn't follow that statement with an action, just continued to tease the dark curls. Ben waited, breath held, until his vision was starting to fade and his pulse was pounding, and finally he couldn't bear the tease any longer. He reached down, caught Billy's hand in his and put it where he needed it, simultaneously dragging air into his lungs in a deep gasp. Billy laughed softly as his hand closed around the hard shaft, stroking.
        "Sorry. Didn't mean to be mean. Couldn't resist. Had to see if you'd do anything." He shifted, moving his mouth back to Ben's to kiss him again, soft, light, frustrating kisses, all the while caressing Ben's cock with a firm, steady rhythm. "Won't do it again," he said in between kisses. Then suddenly both the stroking and the kisses stopped, leaving Ben bereft of sensation. He opened his eyes, saw Billy frowning thoughtfully. Instantly he worried.
        "Is something wrong?"
        Billy looked up, shook his head. "No, just thinking about logistics."
        Ben blinked. "Logistics?"
        "Mmmhmm. Like, how to do this when I can't use my knee. But I got it." He shifted onto his side, and patted the bed in front of him. "C'mere."
        Ben moved toward him, and Billy shook his head.
        "Nope, other way. Back to front."
        Of course. Silly, not to have thought of that. He settled in next to Billy, a little tentatively. He heard the rustle of one of those packets being opened, and shivered in anticipation, imagining those fingers smoothing the latex down over hard flesh. A moment later Billy pulled him back against him, looping one long arm around his waist.
        "Yeah, better. Now, where'd you put your present?"
        Ben groped on the bed until he found where he'd dropped it.
        "Open it."
        Ben fumbled with it a moment, then figured it out and flipped the cap up with his thumb. Billy held out his hand.
        "Fingertips, just a little. And I mean little."
        Ben tipped the bottle, drizzling a ridiculously small amount onto Billy's fingers. "Are you sure?"
        "Trust me."
        Damn. That again. Well, he'd already resolved to do so, right? He nodded, eyeing those long, slim fingers, imagining them . . . he shivered, biting his lip to try to regain control. He was not going to come just from thinking about this. He wasn't, and that was that. With a long, deep breath, he found a modicum of restraint, just as Billy slid a thigh between his own and lifted, and then those fingers were on him, slick and cool, astonishingly slick. Just for a moment his mind went off on a tangent about the composition and uses of whatever it was in the bottle, and then the stroking became more deliberate and coherent thought completely fled. A fingertip slipped inside, just a little, and he shuddered and moaned, amazed once more by just how good it felt. Surely a great deal had been left out of his education on things sexual. Learning, again.
        Shallow strokes, circling, dipping in deeper, little by little, a tease. Ben shifted one knee up, rolled his hips forward a little trying to make it easier, trying to say what he wanted with just his body. Apparently that silent plea was heard, and understood. He gasped and panted as his body adjusted to a new sensation; now two fingers slid and stroked inside him. It was difficult at first, but then it eased, and eased, and there was no discomfort, only the smooth glide of those fingers searching, finding.
        He moaned, a guttural, incoherent sound of pure pleasure. So good, so good. His erection had flagged a little with the addition of that second finger, but he didn't care. Each time those fingers found that place inside him, that incredibly delightful place, he thought he would go over the edge but somehow he didn't. It was a different kind of pleasure from the stimulation of penis, or the spasmodic explosion of orgasm, but not a lesser pleasure at all. And he wanted more. Wanted harder, deeper, fuller.
        His moan was answered by a wordless sound of assent, pressure easing, then returning. Different this time, so different as he was breached by that latex-sheathed shaft, almost too much. He bit back a whimper, knowing it would make Billy stop, and he couldn't bear that, while he could bear this. This was everything he'd wanted, that 'more' he'd instinctively needed. Needed.
        The pressure kept up, steady, and he remembered Billy pushing back against him when he'd done this, so he tried that, and his body yielded more easily, until they were fully fused. Billy's arm wrapped around his waist, hand splayed across his belly, and he became aware that the other man was trembling, a fine, barely-perceptible shiver. The price of control. That knowledge surged through him, as erotic as the penetration, the feel of sweat-slicked skin all along his back, the rapid movement of his belly as he panted, too, the soft crush of pubic hair against his buttocks, the firm, hard arch of thigh between his own.
        "You okay?" Billy breathed.
        Ben nodded. No words possible. More than okay. The discomfort was mostly gone now, he felt so strangely relaxed, yet tense with anticipation.
        "So, I can . . . move?"
        "Oh, please!" he said, shocked by the sound of his own voice, almost a sob.
        Those slim hips bucked forward, rolled back.
        Ben gasped. "Oh, God!"
        Billy froze. "Good or bad, Ben?"
        "Good!" he choked out.
        "Yes," Billy echoed fervently. "So damned good." He moved, his hips settling into a fluid glide that gave a whole new meaning to rapture.
        Ben braced himself against the bed to give resistance to the rhythm. Billy's hand slid down from Ben's stomach to his cock, fingers settling around it, warm and slick, stroking in counterpoint to his thrusts that got easier, and deeper, and better each time. Fire, inside, outside, all over, heat that burned but didn't hurt. He closed his eyes, pumped hard into that hand, back against the welcome invasion, felt himself shattering, walls coming down. He shuddered, clamped his teeth shut on a scream, and came, harder and longer than he'd ever come in his life. He was still recovering from that when Billy moaned a soft expletive against his ear, and shuddered, going still.
        Lying there in another man's arms, his body ticking like hot metal cooling in the shadows, Ben felt earthy, and natural in a way he hadn't in a very long time. He absorbed the unusual feeling of connection with his body, something that had been lacking-- and had sorely missed-- somewhere below the level of conscious thought. How had he gotten so out of tune with himself? He felt a strangely sweet satisfaction in the knowledge that the gratification had been mutual, rather than the perfunctory safety-valve of self-stimulation which only made him feel more lonely, and more discordant. There was no sense of that now, just a pleasant lassitude.
        Billy sighed finally, and slipped a hand between them, Ben could feel his knuckles against his buttocks, then he was easing his hips back and the feeling that had not begun to bloom into full discomfort intensified, then eased, and he was alone within his body again. A moment of aloneness, of chill as air reached the sweat on his skin, bringing with it knowledge of who he was, what he was, where he was. He sighed as well. He heard the distinctive sound of a tissue being removed from a box, then seconds later Billy's warmth returned, an arm looped loosely across his waist, hand spread on his chest, thumb moving in an idle caress.
        "You okay?" Billy asked quietly, inflection different this time, not asking about the physical, or at least, not just that.
        Ben nodded, then somehow knew Billy needed words. "Yes. Tha. . ." Remembering suddenly Billy's reaction to being thanked, he amended his sentence. "That was delightful."
        "Love the way you talk, Ben. Most guys would say it was good, it was great, it was awesome. Not you. You talk like a book reads. Bet you'd be a hell of a lyricist. But I don't mean was it good, that way. Hell, I could tell that without asking, it's kind of easy to tell, with a guy. I meant in here," he splayed his hand over the center of Ben's chest. "You don't do this meaningless sex stuff like I do. I know that. Kind of feel like I pushed you into it."
        Oh dear. Ben pushed back against Billy until he rolled onto his back and Ben could turn over and look into his face. "You're right, I don't," he said in utter seriousness. "But there was nothing meaningless about it. As you said, there's nothing wrong with comfort. And I meant what I said, I needed this. More than I realized. You've helped me understand things about myself which I very much needed to know. And," he said, smiling, ". . . you've taught me things I may need to know someday."
        Billy looked intently into his eyes for a moment, and then his gaze warmed, his mouth began to curve. "Oh yeah? Going to use those new skills on your Ray?"
        Ben gave him a look, and Billy chuckled. "I know, I know. It's never going to happen. But just in case it does, you've got to be prepared, right?"
        Ben allowed himself to smile a little. "Being prepared is the best way to assure a positive outcome."
        Billy laughed out loud. "Christ, you really were a boy scout, weren't you? Ben, I know I said it before, but I really mean it, they fucking broke the mold when they made you. I wish I had . . ."
        Whatever he'd wished was interrupted by the phone ringing. It startled both of them, and they had a brief battle over who was going to answer it before Billy glared at Ben, who was so used to answering phones at the Consulate that it was automatic to reach for it.
        "It's my room, Ben."
        "Yes, right you are," Ben said, quickly withdrawing his hand.
        Billy picked up. "Yeah?" He growled into the handset, his tone nothing like the warm, almost purring voice of moments earlier. "Well fucking hallelujah, it's the mythical Ed. I was wondering when you were going to get around to checking messages." There was a pause as Billy listened, then he flopped back against the bed with a huff. "What do you mean where the hell am I? I'm in Chicago, where did you think you were calling, Mars?" Pause. "No, I'm here because I was in Edmonton trying to clean up the whole mess after Joe fucked off, when I get a message to get my ass to Chicago for a gig on Wednesday. I manage to make it, only to find the gig is off and nobody bothered to tell me. Then to top off my month, I get mugged."
        He listened again, then shook his head. "No way. They got my passport, cards, everything. Got a new bank card today, with some vouching from the Consulate," he winked at Ben, ". . . but probably won't get the other replacements until tomorrow. And since they get a little cranky at the airport if you try to get on a plane with a guitar case and no ID, I'm not even going to try. I'll probably be able to get out sometime tomorrow, that would be in time for some quick rehearsing before the Coliseum show on Saturday, but you guys are going to have to spring for the ticket. I'm not paying my own way after you already made me waste a trip, and no, the frequent flyer miles don't make up for it so don't give me that crap. You can do one of those e-ticket things and I won't even need to pick it up."
        Ben listened, fascinated by this tougher side of Billy, more take-charge, less patient. This, then, was the persona he presented to the world at large, the mask which hid the more vulnerable person behind it. Ben had long been aware that he had his own masks, had always assumed everyone did, but it was always fascinating to see it demonstrated so clearly. He'd been permitted to see glimpses of that Ray, of the innate gentleness hidden behind the 'tough cop' facade he affected, just as he'd been privileged to encounter Billy's hidden self first, his inner self laid bare by the circumstances in which they'd met.
        It suddenly occurred to him that he was listening to Billy making plans to leave. He tensed for a moment, half-expecting that to hurt, but it didn't. While he would in some ways regret his going, there was no ache inside at that thought, as there was with Ray. He relaxed again, a little surprised, and pleased, that he had managed to finally allow himself a freedom without half-destroying himself in the process. Perhaps there was hope, after all, that he could have a halfway normal life someday. A life that at least included intimacy, if not the love he had once assumed would come to him. Of course, he did have that, it just wasn't . . . reciprocated. Not the way he wished it could be. He stifled a sigh, and settled back to listen to Billy argue with 'Ed.'

* * *

        "You didn't have to bring me all the way to the gate, you know," Billy said, grinning as he watched the other travelers in the concourse eye Ben's uniform, and the Stetson tucked beneath his arm. "They probably think I'm a criminal you're escorting."
        Ben stopped in his tracks, staring at Billy, stricken. "Good heavens! I never thought of that! I certainly wouldn't want to give that impression."
        Billy chuckled. "It was a joke, Ben. I'm sure they can all see that I'm a 'National Treasure of Canada' or something and as such deserve a uniformed Mountie escort." He looked thoughtful for a moment, then grinned evilly. "Hey, you know, now that you've had me, does that make me a mount-ee, too?"
        Ben gave him a severe look. "That's quite enough of that."
        Billy laughed, his face lighting, his eyes full of wicked mirth. "What, no sense of humor about the name? I mean, really, it's got to be tough. You've got to know everybody tells jokes about that. Except, shouldn't the horse be the mountie? Or is there something they don't tell us about all you guys? Do you all have to be gay, as well as gorgeous?"
        "Billy!" Ben protested, feeling his face heat. "Someone may overhear you!"
        "So? Notice you didn't deny it!"
        "I didn't want to dignify it with a denial. It's just . . . silly."
        "So it was. Look," Billy said, suddenly serious. "I have to thank you, Ben I really do. Not sure where I was headed, but it wasn't good. You made me take a step back, look at things, understand what happened, and think about what I want. If you ever need anything I can help with, you let me know. I mean that."
        Ben nodded. "I know, but you've done much the same for me. I hope you don't feel a sense of obligation . . ."
        Billy scowled. "Fuck that, Ben. I don't do anything out of obligation. That's the best way to get me running the other way, fast. You should know that."
        Ben smiled sheepishly. "I do, really. I'm just . . ."
        "Yeah, I know. You are, just. Just about pretty fucking perfect, but you don't have a clue, and you don't think you deserve even the most basic things most of us take for granted. You need to work on that."
        Ben shrugged. "It's not in my nature."
        "I suspect there's a lot of things in your nature you don't like to think are there. But that's for you to sort out, not me, though if you need someone to bounce things off of, I'm there. You got my number, right?"
        Ben nodded, his hand going to his cartridge case, where the paper Billy had pressed on him was stored, along with the other items Billy had gifted him with, which he needed to find a private place to store soon. "I have it. So, have you decided what you're going to do about Billie?"
        Billy sighed, raked a hand through his spiked hair, and made a face. "Sort of. I guess I'm going to take your advice and get in touch with Mary, see if we can make some sort of arrangements so I can meet her for real. Don't know if I'll go so far as to say I'm her dad, that might be kind of confusing to her. Still, I want to be involved, want to know her."
        "I think you'll be glad you did."
        Billy smiled. "Hope so, Ben. I really do. What about you? You going to tell Ray?"
        Ben's smile faded. "No."
        Billy sighed again. "Shit. Ben, you don't understand, do you? Even if the guy didn't already play for both teams before you met, after being around you for awhile, I bet he's at least thinking about it now. I don't know why or how, but for a boy scout you just radiate fuckability. I'm surprised you don't get tripped and beaten to the floor on a regular basis. So take advantage of that, for god's sake! Get him alone, maybe a beer or two to relax him, and go for it. See what he says. Bet you'll be surprised."
        "Are you suggesting that I get my partner inebriated and then attempt to seduce him?"
        "Hey, whatever works . . . no, don't get all righteous on me, that was a joke. A bad one, I know. But you know, even if you can't tell him the whole truth and nothing but the truth, at least let him know you care, okay? People don't do enough of that. Maybe if I'd told Joe, it might've helped."
        "Billy, don't do that," Ben said quietly. "Might I suggest that seeing a grief counselor when you get back to Los Angeles could be useful for you?"
        "No, Ben. I'm okay. Really. It's just that those 'if only's' are going to haunt me for a long time."
        Ben nodded solemnly. "Yes, I suspect they will. Still, I wish you would consider it. You have a lot of issues to work through."
        "Oh, Jesus. Issues. Ben, if I had a penny for every 'issue' I've got, I'd be rich. But I'll think about it, okay? Seriously, not just to satisfy you." He grinned suddenly, that flash of startling charm. "Besides, got better ways of satisfying you. You know, it's too bad I didn't get to meet Ray. I'd like to see if there's really as much of a resemblance as you say. When's he due back?"
        Ben colored. "I . . . ah . . . I'm not entirely certain. I didn't want to pry into his personal business."
        "Translation, you were peeved and sulking so you pretended you didn't want to know, right?"
        "I never sulk," Ben protested, offended.
        "That's a shame, because you've sure as hell got the mouth for it. Speaking of which, the cool thing about being Canadian is that we can do shit like this and get away with it. Close your eyes and pretend I'm Québécois." He put down his guitar case and enveloped Ben in a hug, then kissed him on first one cheek, then the other, then full on the mouth, though it was only a brief touch, nothing like the unhurried, sensual explorations they'd indulged in previously. Ben hugged him back, briefly, then Billy's arms slipped away, and he was stepping back, grinning. "So, mon ami, we meet sometime back home for poutine, right?" he asked, in a terrible faux-French accent.
        Ben tried to look severe, difficult to manage as he was blushing, and smiling as well. "Do you have any idea how many calories and how much cholesterol is in a serving of poutine?"
        "No, and don't tell me, either. They're calling my flight. Got to go. Keep in touch, okay?"
        Ben sensed a very real request there, and nodded. "I shall. And you will let me know how things go with your daughter, won't you?"
        Billy nodded. "Absolutely. Goodbye, Ben, and thank you."
        "Thank you, Billy."
        Ben stood for a moment and watched Billy limp through the door to the boarding ramp, then he turned. He had work to catch up on, and he needed to visit the 27th and find out when Ray was supposed to return. At least he had an excuse for asking, since he was, after all, the Canadian liaison to the district. He really ought to know when his partner was returning, for purely professional reasons, of course. Smiling a little, he turned away from the gate and headed swiftly back toward the main terminal, pondering the concept of synchronicity.

* * * Finis * * *

D.S. Excellence Award
This story received the 2000 Due South Excellence Award for "Best Crossover."

This story also won First Place in the "Best Fraser/Other" category of the 2000 "Due Credit Awards."

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